Socks: A History

When I made my first pair of socks in 2005, short rows were an enigma, and I re-knit the heel turn several times, almost throwing in the towel.  I persisted, though, because my mom told me that my grandmother, an excellent and prolific knitter, never mastered sock heels.  I was determined to.  I can't remember the name of the pattern but liked it because the heel looked more like store-bought socks than any I'd seen.  The yarn was Dale of Norway Heilo in the brightest, cheeriest red.  I gave those bright red socks to my sister, which is odd in hindsight.  She never wears red. 

It was a few years later that I tried socks again, this time a pair for myself.  I'm fairly sure it was a pair of socks using the Pomatomus pattern in Jojoland Melody Superwash, purchased because of its affordability at the yarn shop near my alma mater. I remember trying to keep two toddlers from emptying the shelves while I browsed there.  Not at all stressful.  They wore fairly well, but the yarn was scratchy and squeaky.  If it wasn't those socks, it was a pair out of Colinette Jitterbug in the colorway Monet (not Gaughin).  I used the vanilla pattern from the ball band, and accidentally knit the second sock on a different needle size from the first.  Rookie mistake.  The socks were faded and out at heel in about two seconds, teaching me a lesson in the importance of nylon, which didn't really sink in until recently.

With the publication of Ann Budd's On-Your-Toes pattern, my sock knitting became a more regular thing.  I learned that I liked toe-up socks, with a German short row heel, one or two-at-a-time, on two 24" circulars.  So for almost ten years, that's the pattern I used for just about every pair of socks I knit, modifying all the patterns I liked to fit it--I can't tell you how many stitch patterns I turned into toe-up versions.   

Toe-up version of the Honey Badger sock pattern with German short row heel.  Yarn is House of a la Mode Sock in the color Mermaid Mane (no longer available)

But I still wasn't knitting socks or wearing hand knit socks all the time.  (Of the fifty+ pairs I've knit in my lifetime, almost half have been made since 2018.)  My drawer had maybe three or four pairs, and I only knit socks when one pair really wore out.  Then, in the summer and fall of 2015, we were living with family and out of suitcases.  Small projects were the only things that made sense, and socks were small.  I knit several pairs while nursing Little M, and when we were finally settled my sock drawer was pretty full.  But.  I hadn't checked the yarn content for many of the sock yarn, and assumed if it was called "sock yarn" it had nylon in it.  I also learned that while single plies like Tosh Merino Light and Malabrigo Mechita make deliciously soft socks, they do not wear well AT ALL.   Several of those pairs lasted just a  season or two and had to be scrapped after much mending.

In 2020 I set out to replace all those worn out socks, and I again didn't pay much attention to the fiber content, rather I used stash yarn purchased before I'd resolved to use only sock yarn containing nylon. Several of the replacement pairs knit in 2020 have holes in both the toes and heels.  Ah, well!  2021 and 2022 sock knitting has led to several Eureka moments about how to construct socks for durability and best fit.  I'll share those below.


I've tried several different types of toes and find that decreasing evenly around the circumference of the toe (like the crown of a hat) distributes the wear of the stitches evenly.  Decreasing in two places, as if along a seam or the top of a Selbu mitten creates a ladder and a thin area which develops holes quickly.

My favorite toe (pattern below).  Yarn is Viola Yarns Mini Sock in Silt, Happy Lion, and Grasslands.

My favorite toe for my usual 64 stitches is as follows:

Row 1: *k 6, ssk*    Row 2: *k*    Row 3: *k 5, ssk*    Row 4: *k*... (and so forth)

I haven't found a good way to use this method for toe-up knitting.  Further research is necessary.


I like the professional look and speed of the heel from this pattern, but it sags and bunches with wear.  Most of my holes develop right at the point of the heel turn, so I have a couple of ways to combat that.

1) Use slip stitch to reinforce the heel.  This pattern is a great one.  I use it to reinforce the heel of some socks made from Mondim yarn (no nylon!), and so far they're wearing pretty well.

The toe-up slip-stitch panel wraps from the bottom of my heel to my ankle.  

2) Personally, for the best fit, flap-and-gusset heels are my first choice.  The socks I've made using one, whether toe-up or cuff-down, don't get as stretched and saggy with wear.  I'm confident enough with nylon reinforced yarn to knit the heel in stockinette, but for questionable sock yarn either a slipstitch or eye-of-partridge flap provides good reinforcement.


I prefer about an inch of negative ease for my socks and a very small gauge.  64 stitches on size 0 (2mm) typically gives me the fabric and fit I like, and a gauge between 8 and 6 stitches per inch.


My absolute favorite way to knit socks is on 5" long bamboo double pointed size 0 (2mm) needles.  They're light, smooth, dull, and have just the right catch on the yarn, but I snap them in half too easily for daily use.  Second best is the magic loop method, still size 0 (2mm).  Most have points that are too sharp; I've drawn blood more than once.  Needles with a truly dull point have proven to be elusive (except for the bamboo ones), but addi has the most comfortable.  I completely avoid metal double pointed needles and 9" circulars.  Metal dpns are too heavy, and small circumference circulars are too small to be comfortable.


There are so many gorgeous choice out there!  A couple of points...

1) Fingering weight socks fit best into all my shoes.

2) Non-superwash is much toastier than superwash.  I handwash all my socks regardless.

3) Multi-ply, nylon-reinforced yarn is the most durable, whether superwash or not.

4) Sometimes the least expensive yarn lasts the longest. 


  1. I'm going to get sock yarn with nylon! I wore through my handknit socks with alpaca wool (no nylon) and just can't bear to waste again. Thanks for sharing your experience and wisdom.

    1. I bet those alpaca socks were extra soft and warm. If you poke around the internet a little, you'll find sock yarns with alpaca *and* nylon: soft, squishy, and durable.


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