All About Socks: Patterns

OK, before we get rolling this morning  I have to share this:

20140106-080829.jpgThis was after the sun came up. And this thermometer is actually under our eaves where it is sure to get some heat coming off the house. What’s more horrifying is the 15 – 20mph wind blowing on top of it. And you know that it’s bad when paired with this information, the weather forecast is: “Bitterly cold. Colder.” I know a lot of you are experiencing similar weather — I hope that you have loved ones like my husband who took out the trash for me (thanks, hun!) and that you are able to stay hunkered down under the covers. Please stay safe & warm today!

So today I want to talk about what’s been a hot topic over on the Socks with Sarah Ravelry thread: patterns. Nearly as exciting as the yarn we knit with are the patterns we choose and each knitter’s preference — like so many things in the craft — are as unique as the knitter him/herself. Toe-up, Top-down, short-row heel, afterthought heel, fish lips kiss heel, tube socks, sweet tomato, dk weight, fingering weight, magic loop, 2circs, dpns, cables, lace, ribbing, stockinette. . . . . g a s p !  Seriously this list of options goes on. And on. And on.

So what makes a good pattern? Two things come to mind: fit and good pattern writing.

First, fit. No ill-fitting handknit is more irritating than socks that don’t fit. The first thing I do before I even buy a pattern or cast-on is browse project pages for a pattern on Ravelry. I select a yarn I am thinking about using or one that is similar and scroll through the projects. I look at photos and read comments. Most knitters will not hold back if things fit well or not. Of course, you must take into account that gauge plays a roll, too, and while we all hope everyone is checking their gauge we also all kind of know everyone probably is not. Read more than one review and look closely at the photos to be sure the feedback is fair to the design.  By the way, this means you, too, should check your gauge before beginning to ensure things work out properly. I might sound like a broken record, but I’m just going to keep saying that from time to time for good measure.

At the end of the day, fit also has to do with the fact that we are all human beings with unique bodies. Personally, I have hip issues from birth that have left my left leg & foot noticeably smaller than my right. With socks, this can be a little tricky and makes me always lean toward stretchier patterns, especially those with ribbing, which form a little more readily to my different shaped feet. As a side note, this is also why I always recommend a beginner sock knitter start with a ribbed sock — it will be more forgiving as far as fit goes. Finding sock styles & patterns that fit your feet and the feet of your loves ones can take some trial and error. You can certainly go the road of designing for yourself or modifying patterns. I, however, tend to reason that there are tons of sock patterns out there & I am happy to keep trying new ones. That’s just how I roll.

Now, about pattern writing. I would argue that good pattern writing is just as important as fit when it comes to socks. If a designer doesn’t concisely & clearly lead you through the pattern it can be a less than ideal experience. In fact, it can be a disaster. As far as knitting patterns go, sock patterns can be pretty complex. One thing I learned as a teacher is that the more words there are in a pattern, the more likelihood you have of missing something or misreading and making a mistake. At the same time, you have to include all the tiny details imperative to success. So, we have this delicate dance between enough words & not too many. I think the best designers are the ones who hit that Goldilocks bullseye.

Along with clear writing, a nice clean layout also makes a big difference. Sock patterns inevitably have step-by-step sections and it helps a great deal when those sections are clearly marked. If there is too much clutter, these sections can be hard to follow and lead to boo-boos. Of course, for all aspects of pattern writing as you get more familiar with sock knitting it gets slightly less imperative that everything is just so since you’ll be familiar with how a sock works and you’ll be able to infer certain aspects. That just comes with experience and sometimes a little luck.

That leads me to why I chose to start the Socks with Sarah KAL with Churchmouse Yarns & Teas Basic Sock. I think it’s important for me to start with a basic sock because it opens this KAL up to beginnners as well as seasoned sock knitting vets. When knitting, I think there is nothing better than a group that has very diverse & varied skill sets. We all get to see things in different ways and I think it is just a much richer learning & creative environment.  I also think a good basic sock is really essential in a knitter’s repertoire. I chose this pattern because it is simply the best basic sock pattern I’ve worked. It’s not because I like top-down better than toe-up or double pointed needles more than magic loop. It’s because this is one darn good pattern. The writing is edited to that perfect Goldilocks bullseye, the layout is clear, and I’ve never heard a complaint on fit. I like that it’s a true handknit sock form that covers all the basics — you work the cuff, the heel flap, the gusset, the foot, and the toe. The fact that it is written for two gauges — both sport/DK & fingering — is a great bonus, too. Oh, and I’m working them on dpns simply because that’s what the pattern uses. When starting something new, make it simple.

As you experiment and try different patterns, you will learn designers that you prefer. Those whose writing & layout styles reach you particularly easily, who walk you through patterns as if it was a pleasant walk through the park, whose socks fit you just so. You’ll try out different techniques with different needles and maybe even give 2-at-a-time a whirl. Believe me, I spent the wee hours of this morning huddled under a blanket adding patterns to my Socks with Sarah Ravelry queue – more on this soon and a million thanks to Chloe (ravelry ID: mysparklyshoes) for introducing this function to me! For now though, I’m getting excited to start a basic sock and to watch all my fellow KALers work on their chosen designs — Monkey by Cookie A, Hermione’s Everyday Socks by Erica Lueder, Bunting by Lisa Richardson — the list goes on & on and it only gets better & better. I don’t know about you, but I’m getting excited for this KAL to get rolling!


(just a few sock knitting books & patterns from my library…)

All About Socks: Needle Basics

Already on the Socks with Sarah Ravelry thread there has been a fair bit of discussion about method & needle choice for sock knitting. Like everything in knitting, we all have our favorites. There are those who prefer magic loop or two circular needles and there are those who prefer the good ‘ol fashioned double-pointed needles. I… well, I’ll be honest. I like them all. You name it and I’ve tried it — including the famed 2-at-a-time method both on two circs & magic loop. I’m a knitter who enjoys variety, so I like to change things up.

I started many moons ago on bamboo and birch double-pointed needles — they are by far the most conservative option. If you are worried about needles falling out of your stitches or you just like a nice grippy needles, these are the way to go. Bamboo can vary quite a bit as far as how much grip they offer — and remember yarn plays an important role in this equation, too. In my opinion Crystal Palace bamboo are just one step shy of a metal needle. Birch, though, birch is like the velcro of knitting needles. If you are looking for the ultimate in secure double-pointed needles, needles that won’t budget without your express consent, this is the way to go. Brittany is the most readily available birch needle around my area & I actually really love them (they make cable needles that are unbeatable, too). They are earthy to the extreme and all around beautiful needles to boot.

Brittany needles are so pretty!
Brittany needles — delicate & earthy.

From these needles, I went on to learn magic loop. As you well know, magic loop requires one long circular needle. For this purpose I have used Addi Turbos for socks requiring a US 1. I prefer 32″ when knitting one sock in magic loop. While you certainly can use a 24″ & 40″ and many swear by one or the other, personally I find 24″ is uncomfortably short & 40″ is so much cable it gets in my way.  Yes, 32″ is definitely my Goldilocks length when it comes to magic loop for one sock. While I haven’t had the good fortune of trying out Addi’s Sock Rockets, they on my list of needles I really want to take for a spin. I hear rave reviews about them all the time, so one of these days a test drive is definitely in order — I’ll be sure to share what I think when I get there.

While I am a big fan of Addis, for US 2 & higher, I usually use HiyaHiya interchangable needles. I love that you can purchase US2 & US3 interchangable needles tips & cables in this brand. You can certainly just buy the 2 sets of tips and a cable or two. If you already have the small interchangable set though, these extra tips augment  your needle range from US2 all the way up to US8 — all able to use the same cables. For someone like me who uses those 2s and 3s a lot, this is a huge selling point. You can also select tip length– 4″ or 5″, tip shape — sharps or regular, and they even make bamboo sets. They are kind of like choose-your-own-adventure needle!  There are definitely times when I prefer the tip & the ever-so-slightly tackier HiyHiya tip. While it’s true, I could just get the Addi fixed needles in US2 & US3, but I like the flexibility of interchangables — especially when we start talking about this next point.

2-at-a-time.  When knitting socks 2-at-a-time (2aat), I will occasionally use the 2 circular method method if I don’t have a long enough cable to easily use magic loop 2aat. I prefer magic loop simply because I think it is much easier to keep track of where I am and therefore I’m much less likely to make mistakes. For magic loop 2aat I usually opt for a 40″ cable — for me, there is nothing more irritating that having to recover my ‘loop’ because the cable length is too small & I keep pulling it into the sock. This is where — if you are like me and fussy about your tools — the interchangables come in handy. Thanks to these sets, I almost always have the proper 40″ needle available. If I don’t though, I can easily use one 32″ and one 24″ which I usually have around and work my socks on 2circs. Like many of you, I have doubles of a lot of fixed circular needles, so this back-up plan generally saves me a trip to buy another needle.

All this being said, these days I have been rocking the metal double-pointed needles. It’s kind of like I’ve come full circle! I like the speed & lightweight feel of good metal needles. For the most part I have HiyaHiya stainless steel double points that I picked up at my LYS which I really like. At less than $10 a set they are a truly the best bang for your buck I’ve found.

Hiya-Hiya double-pointed needles — They are like to Honda of double-pointed needles. Pretty darn nice for not a lot of money.

For the first pair of socks in the Socks with Sarah KAL, however, I will be test driving my luxury needles.

Signature Needle Arts -- truly a work of art.
Signature Needle Arts — truly a work of art.

I have heard nothing but great things about Signature Needle Arts which is what brought me to splurge on a set at the 2013 Wisconsin Sheep & Wool Festival — many thanks to Yarns by Design for bringing them to the show!  As I like to support local business when I can, I love that these needles were developed and are manufactured in the USA, about 2hours from my house. These needles are definitely not what I would recommend for a beginning sock knitter, but for the seasoned knitter with a little cash for a special treat… like me, they might be worth the splurge for you. I will definitely let you know what I think shortly after the 15th!

Of course, really lovely luxury wooden needles exist, too. These would be rosewood needles and they are stunning.

Blue Sky Alpacas Rosewood Needles — stunning wood that knits like metal.

These are from Blue Sky Alpacas and I used them throughout the MerryKAL.  They are lovely & they knit with the organic feel of wood but the smooth speed of metal. If you like wooden needles and are looking for a special set, these are definitely a great option.

Now if you have some double pointed needles (or circular, for that matter), you will want to have a method to storing them that goes beyond tossing them in a cup. While a double-pointed needle bouquet may look kind of cool in the moment, you will probably be singing a different tune when it comes time to locate a set. I swear by my della Q cases. I ‘ve had this one for 4 or 5 years and I love it.

Beautiful silk taffeta with a stripe accent — 5years old and it looks brand new!

Inside it’s clearly labeled and made from beautiful chocolate brown silk (there are a bunch of other colors, too). Mostly, what I value is that it’s clearly labeled and easy to fold up and put in my knitting bag. These days I use it mostly for storing my wooden needles.

Love the clear labels & the extra spots for overflow on the right side.

When planning the Socks with Sarah KAL before the Christmas holiday, though, I happened to be browsing needle cases for my mom. It’s kind of a funny story — she had showed up at my house on Thanksgiving ready to start knitting her first sock and when I asked if she had X needle, she held up two zip-lock bags of tangled needles dpns & circs. I almost passed out. When I recovered my breathing, I immediately started seeking a nice needle case for her. Well, you know how it goes, one thing leads to another and while I was looking I found the Lily Solely Socks case.

Again with the gorgeous silk taffeta from dellaQ — I love the stripey interior and the little zipper pouch for extra stitch markers, etc.

Perfect for this KAL.

I tossed it into the cart (if you like to flip-flop between dpns & circs, the Combo Sock Case might better fit your bill). I love this little needle case. It is super small & holds just what I need for socks.

So. Pretty. And. Cute.

It’s true that there are a lot of options when it comes to needles — needle cases, too, for that matter. This post has covered my needle evolution over the years — I’ve tried to be relatively thorough, but some details like needle tip length and cable flexibility I just didn’t dive into today. I don’t want to overwhelm you with all the minute details, but if you have further or more specific questions, please feel free to ask!

Like so many things in knitting, I think the best way to find your favorite is to try them out. I think it’s pretty cool that everyone’s story is a little different — why we use the tools we use, what methods we use, the changes we’ve made throughout the years to how we do things. The tools we use & the reasons we use them are as unique as we are. Be sure to share your stories & preferences on the Socks with Sarah Ravelry thread — your KAL friends want to know what you think!

By the way, there’s still plenty of time to join the Socks with Sarah KAL! Want to know more? Check out this blog post and then pop over to throw your hat in on the Sock with Sarah Ravelry thread. We all look forward to seeing you there!

Freezing, but Happy

I will admit it. I love winter, but it is really, really cold right now.

My husband celebrated a landmark birthday over the weekend and what was supposed to be an adventure in the Northwoods was derailed by snow, wind, and extreme cold. We probably could have made the drive up to the Northwoods — I am told I’m far to cautious when it comes to driving with the kids in any type of bad weather. In the end though it was probably for the best as our little boy ended up coming down with a pretty serious cold.  Although it was kind of disappointment to not follow through with the plan & I spent a good deal of time feeling guilty for calling it off, we did our best to make what we could of the weekend together. We went looking for a Snowy Owl.

Relatively speaking, our area is crawling with Snowy Owls this year. It has been very, very cold (right now it is 3degrees F and ‘feels like’ -7), so I assume this has driven even larger than normal numbers of these beautiful arctic birds south. It’s tradition — we try to find one every year — but this year we seem to consistently just miss them. We have, however, seen a lot of amazing wintry scenery.

20131216-101509.jpgThis was our ‘snowstorm’ that never got super bad, but was pretty uncomfortable to stand out in. When it is that cold and snowing and windy, it mostly just feels like tiny icicles being sprayed directly into your face at moderately high speeds. Ow.

20131216-101635.jpgBut it’s still beautiful.

20131216-101625.jpgAnd as always, Moose is still happy to chase sticks. He may be the world’s biggest snuggler (read: big baby) when it comes to being cold indoors, but throw a stick in a subzero snowstorm and he’s in heaven. That’s our dog.

We struck out finding an owl, but we did see lots of Rough-Legged Hawks which are stinking gorgeous. And we found this guy:

merlinA merlin.

One of two we saw over the weekend, we rarely see them so this was a real treat. My husband nearly froze taking this photo. I stayed in the car. Thanks for taking one for the team, dear — it’s an awesome photo and not often that a falcon will sit still for that long for you (I totally arranged that for your birthday, by the way — Happy Birthday!).

With our boy sick though, I spent a fair bit of time sitting with him so I did manage to wrap up some knitting which is good. After all, Christmas is only getting closer.

mittensI finished my daughter’s mittens — finally! They took me five days. Five days that felt like for-ever.

mittens2They came out really nicely and thanks to Ann Budd’s The Knitter’s Handy Book of Patterns they should fit perfectly. I made them a little big to account for felting — my daughter severely felts all mittens instantly. Even fibers that shouldn’t felt much, felt. I have learned that the hard way. So her mittens are now always made with a little extra room.

hat scarf & mittensSo her matching trio of Annie’s Swiss Cheese Scarf, Knitbot Simple Hat, and her custom mittens are all done & ready to be wrapped (they are unblocked in the photo — call me lazy, but I don’t believe in blocking outerwear for 6-year-olds for the most part).

And…. I think I have enough of the Quince & Co Osprey in rosa rugosa left over to make myself a Simple Hat, too. Rock on.

I also managed another of Churchmouse Yarn & Tea’s Boyfriend Watch Cap. This one for my boy.

peak's ferry 2Knit in Quince & Co Lark again, this time in the peaks ferry colorway. I thought the colorway was going to be kind of a boring Christmas red, but it is actually a really unique red. Just a little watery which adds some depth and keeps it from being a really sharp, flat red. Love it.  And it’ll be a perfect back-up hat for my boy.

And finally, I’m working on the last Christmas knitting projects (probably)…

regia irlandSock #2 of a pair for my husband. I would keep these a secret, but I had to check the sizing so my husband tried one on already. I haven’t made a stockinette sock for him in a while & it just looked huge. But nope, they fit well. I am loving that Old Norwegian/German Twisted Cast-on, by the way. I will never go back to long-tail cast-on for socks.

As is par for the course, my mind is racing ahead to what I’m going to work on next. And I am in full-on planning mode for a fun year-long 2014 theme/goal for myself and, of course, for anyone who decides to join me because y’all are always welcome. More on that later though.

For now, I am going to be right here. Caring for my sick boy who was up at 4am coughing. Laughing at my dog who seems to want a nose warmer to wear in the house. Keeping the kids out of the basement so no one sees the snake. Wrapping gifts. Finishing socks. Looking for owls. Getting way too excited for Christmas. And just in general…

20131216-101645.jpg Freezing, but happy.

Works Like a Charm

I have a handful of finished projects to share here, but thought I would start with my newest pair of socks.

cakewalk_socks_medium2Knit with a beautiful merino/cashmere/nylon blend from the now closed Cakewalk Yarns shop on Etsy, they socks are far & away the most luxurious that I own. As soft and cozy as they are a lovely colorway, these have quickly become favorites & inspired what might end up being a small obsession with sock knitting in the near future.

As you can see from the photo, I knit these socks with a ribbed cuff and ribbing along the top of the foot. While I know knitting with ribbing is often viewed as a pain by many knitters, I have a really excellent reason for ribbing my socks: my feet and calves are different sizes! While I certainly can wear stockinette socks and have plans to knit some non-ribbed socks in the near future, when I knit a ‘vanilla’ pair of socks for myself they always have ribbing. My ‘bad’ hip has resulted in a overall diminished leg on the left side, which means all the muscles are smidge smaller and the foot is slightly shorter & narrower. While I certainly could knit a custom left and right sock for each pair & mark them accordingly, or I could just deal with one sock being slightly too big (really the difference isn’t so great), at the end of the day ribbing has become a good compromise for me. With each wash they rebound back to their wonderfully stretchy & accommodating selves and are ready for either of my mismatched feet.

detail_finished_medium2Plus, I think they look pretty.

For my vanilla socks, I’ve taken to using Churchmouse Yarns & Teas Basic Sock pattern. It is a top-down sock pattern that is both clear & concise and I appreciate that. When I am making a vanilla sock I am not looking for plot twists and surprises. I just want to knit the darn socks with minimal pattern referencing so they travel well while knitting & can be on my feet asap. I want the heel turn to be easy to follow & the gusset decreases to to be simple. This pattern delivers. Perfect for first-time sock knitters as well as experienced knitters who want just a good ‘ol vanilla pattern, the folks at Churchmouse can’t be beat on this one.

I also LOVE that this pattern offers instructions for both fingering weight & sport/dk weight yarns. If you love a nice, lighweight sock and don’t mind investing some time, the fingering is certainly for you. For first-time sock knitters that dk weight sock is a must. It works up so much faster than the fingering! For Christmas sock knitting, too,  those dk socks fly off the needles. Or, of course, if you just want quick, warm socks that still comfortably fit in your shoes the dk weight does the trick. For my husband who has really weird inflexible ankles and kind of big feet (sorry, dear, but it’s true), I knit the fingering weight instructions with dk weight yarn & needles. Works. Like. A. Charm.

The only modification I make to this pattern when I knit it for myself is that knit the first inch or so of the cuff with a 1×1 rib and then switch to a 2×2 rib for the rest of the sock’s ribbing. It may be all in my head, but that little bit of an extra snugness seems to keep the socks in place a little better for me. Usually I use a loose long-tail cast-on for these socks, but I have plans to give the German twisted cast-on a try since I’ve heard it has a little extra stretch to it. I will give it a try & report back.

In the mean time, I’m going to wear the heck out of these socks.

For my notes on this project, see my Ravelry project page.