It is a simple joy to knit wool socks. What better way to provide warm clothing for your family to wear in winter? It seems that everyone can appreciate a pair of wool socks—they’re warm, they stay warm when they get wet, and they’re oh-so-comfortable to wear. And, lucky for me, they’re my favorite things to knit. Socks can be simple or intricate, knitted from the toe-up or the cuff down and at just about any gauge you can imagine. They’re a small, portable project and always an interesting knit.
But I’m finding that, for some people, the idea of knitting socks can be intimidating. Many of my blog readers comment that they’d love to knit socks but are just too intimidated to try—and that got me thinking. I find sock knitting to be relatively easy, as long as you know the knitting basics and have mastered a few key skills. I’ve since made it my personal mission to help people understand that socks aren’t hard to knit—really! So I wrote this tutorial to demystify sock knitting and explain basic sock construction for those who want to try knitting socks for the first time or get reacquainted with this great skill.
I start with a basic introduction to sock knitting, the anatomy of a sock and a list of skills and their abbreviations that you’ll need to know, in hopes of bolstering your confidence on your sock-knitting journey. Then I follow up with a simple sock pattern with an optional textured stitch pattern. Beginning sock knitters may want to knit the sock plain, whereas intermediate knitters may want to add the textured stitch pattern to keep things interesting. The gender-neutral pattern comes in two sizes, Women’s (8” foot circumference) and Men’s (9 1/2″ foot circumference).
Let’s get started!
Introduction to Sock Knitting
Socks have five basic parts: the leg, the heel, the gusset, the foot, and the toe. At first glance, knitting socks is like knitting a tube with a bend in it. Socks can be knit from the cuff-down or from the toe-up, with several different options for heel types. If you’ve already mastered the skills needed for sock knitting (listed in the following section), I suggest selecting a simple cuff-down sock pattern, like the Thermal Textured Socks below, for your first pair. Cuff-down and toe-up socks are about the same when it comes to level of difficulty, however cuff-down socks require a few less technical skills and a simpler, less fiddly cast-on method; plus, I find them to be more intuitive to knit and physically easier to execute.
Anatomy of a Sock
Anatomy of a Sock: Cuff, Leg, Heel, Gusset, Foot, and Toe
Specific instructions are provided in the pattern at the end of this article, but here’s a quick explanation of how socks are knitted:
To begin knitting a pair of socks from the cuff down, you will loosely cast on a certain number of stitches and join to knit them in the round—this is the cuff. You will knit down the leg of the sock and then prepare to knit the heel. The instep stitches are held on one or two double-pointed needles (DPNs) and the heel flap is knitted back and forth on the sole stitches only. A heel flap-type heel is the most common, traditional heel for hand-knitted socks. The heel flap is knitted to a certain length and then the heel is “turned” with a series of short rows. The knitter then picks up stitches from the sides of the heel flap and returns to knitting in the round, decreasing every other row for the gusset.
Then the foot is knitted to the desired length. The pattern will tell the knitter when to begin knitting the toe; typically, when the foot measures 2 1/2″ less than the wearer’s foot. (You’ll have to measure the intended wearer’s foot or, if you want to be sneaky, measure his or her shoe insole or look up the measurements online based on the wearer’s shoe size.)
To create the toe, the knitter will decrease four times on every other row; the pattern will explain where and how. Then the decrease row will be knitted every row until a certain number of stitches remain—this tapers the toe to a perfect shape. (It will look a little pointy compared to commercially made socks, but you’ll see how a foot fills it out nicely when the wearer tries it on.)
The knitter will then graft the remaining stitches closed—this is probably the most technically difficult sock-knitting skill to master, but it’s useful to know for other knitted projects, such as joining the shoulders of a sweater, so it’s worth learning and won’t take long to master with practice.
Even though I provide additional details and instructions in the pattern below that you won’t typically find in most patterns, you will still need to know how to read a knitting pattern, and for the optional texture pattern, how to read charts. (It’s easy.)
Now on to the technical skills.
Sock-knitting Skills and Abbreviations
In order to knit socks, you will need to know how to:
:: Cast on
:: Knit (k)
:: Purl (p)
:: Decrease: Knit two together (k2tog)
:: Decrease: Purl two together (p2tog)
:: Decrease: slip, slip knit (ssk)
:: Knit in the round on double pointed needles (DPNs) (as opposed to knitting flat on two straight needles)
:: Pick up stitches (PU)
:: Slip stitches (sl)
:: Grafting (kitchener stitch)
sts = stitches
rep = repeat
WS = wrong side
RS = right side
If you don’t yet own all of these skills, don’t despair—you can learn and practice the skills individually and put them all together on the sock. Knitting is a skill, like many others, that gets better with practice. Even if you’re short a skill or two, you can teach yourself while you work the socks—you’ll have to learn them sometime, and there’s no time like the present!
The Pattern: Thermal Textured Socks for Men and Women
Two 50-gram balls of fingering weight sock yarn
Set of 5 U.S. Size 2 DPNs or size to get gauge
Size: Women’s(Men’s) Instructions for the larger size are in parentheses.
Gauge: 8 sts/inch
Notes: Work optional chart across instep sts (sts on needles 1 & 2). Charts are located at the end of the pattern. Be sure to work the correct chart for the size sock you are knitting.
Loosely cast on 64(76) sts and join without twisting to knit in the round. Arrange sts evenly across four DPNs so there are 16(19) sts on each needle. Needles 1 & 2 hold your instep sts; needles 3 & 4 hold your sole sts.
Knit one(one) inch of k2p2 ribbing: * k2, p2 rep from * to end of round.
For textured stitch pattern, begin knitting Women’s(Men’s) chart on needles 1 & 2; k sts on needles 3 & 4.
For plain socks, k all sts.
Continue working leg until it reaches 6(7) inches long. Set aside instep sts and prepare to work back and forth on sole sts only (needles 3 & 4).
Working back and forth on sole sts only (needles 3 & 4), you will slip the first stitch of each row purl-wise. Slipping the first stitch of each row helps us pick up the correct number of stitches from the edges of the heel flap to form the gusset. Slipping every other stitch purl-wise on right side rows creates an elastic, form-fitting heel flap. Work the heel flap as follows:
Row 1 (WS): sl 1, p to end of row
Row 2 (RS): * sl 1, k1, rep from * to end of row
Repeat rows 1 and 2 12(14) times more—32(38) sts
This is what the heel looks like after the heel flap is knitted and the heel has been turned. The instep stitches and sole stitches are labeled.
Turn the Heel
Short rows form the ‘L’ in your tube. Turn the heel as follows:
Row 1: sl 1, p(17)22, p2tog, p1, turn
Row 2: sl 1, k(5)9, ssk, k1, turn
Row 3: sl 1, p(6)10, p2tog, p1, turn
Row 4: sl 1, k(7)11, ssk, k1, turn
Row 5: sl 1, p(8)12, p2tog, p1, turn
Row 6: sl 1, k(9)13, ssk, k1, turn
Row 7: sl 1, p(10)14, p2tog, p1, turn
Row 8: sl 1, k(11)15, ssk, k1, turn
Row 9: sl 1, p(12)16, p2tog, p1, turn
Row 10: sl 1, k(13)17, ssk, k1, turn
Row 11: sl 1, p(14)18, p2tog, p1, turn
Row 12: sl 1, k(15)19, ssk, k1, turn
Row 11: sl 1, p(16)20, p2tog, p(0)1, turn
Row 12: sl 1, k(16)21, ssk, k(0)1—18(24) sts
Here is the heel after it’s been turned, as viewed from the bottom.
Now you’ll pick up stitches along both sides of the heel flap and start knitting the gusset. You’ll pick up one extra stitch on each side between the sole stitches and the instep stitches to close up a gap that often forms there. You will then decrease two stitches on every other round to shape the gusset, decreasing four times on the first decrease round because of the extra two stitches we picked up in the gaps.
This is what the sock will look like after you pick up stitches along both sides of the heel flap.
Pick up stitches as follows
With RS facing, PU 14(16) sts up the right side of heel, PU 1 st between sole and instep sts, work in pattern (or plain stockinette) across instep sts (needles 1 & 2), PU 1 st between sole and instep sts, then PU 14(16) sts down left side of heel.
Knit 9(12) sts to get to center of heel. The center of heel is now the beginning of your round—80(96) sts—and your needles are renumbered as follows:
You now have 24(29) sts on needle 1, (16)19 sts on needle 2, (16)19 sts on needle 3 and 24(29) sts on needle 4.
Initial decrease round:
Knit to the last 5 sts on needle 1, k2tog, k2tog, k1; knit in pattern (or plain stockinette) across needles 2 & 3, k1, ssk, ssk, knit to end of round on needle 4.
Next round: knit
Round 1: Knit to the last 3 sts on needle 1, k2tog, k1; knit in pattern (or plain stockinette) across needles 2 & 3, k1, ssk, knit to end of round on needle 4.
Round 2: Knit
Repeat rounds 1 and 2 until 64(76) sts remain.
Work in pattern as set (or in plain stockinette) until the foot measures 2 1/2″(2 1/2″) shorter than intended wearer’s foot.
If knitting the charted pattern, stop pattern and continue in stockinette stitch. Decrease for toe as follows:
Round 1: Knit to the last last 3 sts on needle 1, k2tog, k1; k1, ssk, k the rest of the sts on needle 2; k until the last three sts of needle 3, k2tog, k1; k1, ssk, knit to end of round on needle 4.
Round 2: Knit
Repeat rounds 1 and 2 until 32(40) sts remain. Then repeat round 1 until 12(16) sts remain. Knit across the stitches on needle 1.
Graft rem 12(16) sts closed.
Weave in ends.
Kelly Patla shares original knitting patterns, craft tutorials, seasonal recipes and how her family lives a nature-inspired life on an old dairy farm in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, on her blog, Creating a Family Home. She sells select patterns on her blog, in her Etsy shop and on Ravelry.