If we're going to discuss modifying sock patterns and adapting them to fit the feet of those you love and knit for, it seems like a good idea to start with a good basic understanding of what goes into a sock. By starting at the very beginning (it's a very good place to start, after all) we'll all be on the same page as far as the basics, regardless of our actual sock knitting experience. Then when we get to the modifying and adapting part, you'll understand these basics and how they relate to each other in the whole sock.
When I began knitting socks I followed the patterns exactly. I didn't put much thought into it, (except after the heel turn where clearly, magic had happened and each heel turn got a dramatic pause of appreciation) but I just kept doing what the pattern told me to do. I remember the exact pair of socks that slapped me upside the head and made me realize, that maybe I needed to put some more thought into my sock knitting than I had previously. You see, I have narrow feet. I had successfully knit socks with 64 stitches around in an average fingering weight yarn before. Using needles in US 1 (2.25 mm). The pattern that made me have a lightbulb moment called for 64 stitches around in average fingering weight and US 2's (2.75 mm). Obviously, my feet swam in those socks like dolphins in the ocean (which is good if you're a dolphin but bad if you're a foot).
As I continued knitting socks, I began to notice that the majority of the sock patterns I was using had some proportional things in common. I started paying attention and started changing sock patterns to knit for Mickael and Caleb as well as adapting patterns to my handspun yarn. Sure enough, as long as I kept the proportions in mind, I could produce socks for any of our feet in any yarn. Now obviously not everyone has the same shape of foot, but if you know how your feet are different from the "average" foot, you can tweak the proportions and still get a nicely fitted sock.
A few things I should note here before we get into this is that I will be using Top Down (cuff to toe) socks knit on Double Points for my model for this discussion. There will be a lot of similarities to Toe Up socks and once you have your numbers figured out, you can just apply them to the parts of the sock you're working. If you knit your socks sideways, or wrong side out and backwards, you might not get too much out of this discussion. If you prefer to Magic Loop your socks, I am going to assume that you know how to adapt a pattern written for DPN's to your particular needle situation. I'm not personally a big fan of circular needles and the idea of using circular needles for acrobatic sock tricks really makes me a bit nauseous. If you've learned how to do this, recheck the book/site you learned it on and I bet there are directions for adapting from DPN's to your technique. Also, I will keep the math as simple as I possibly can, but there will be a little bit of math. Don't panic, I'll be right here.
Parts of a Sock
- Gauge - This is often ignored by sock knitters, but affects fit in socks the same way it does in a sweater. There's just not as much knitting in a sock. Usually. Gauge is the number of stitches per inch (I almost never fool around with rounds per inch on socks and so far it's worked out) that a particular knitter gets on a specific size and type of needle, with a specific yarn. This means that your sock gauge will not match your best friend's. Your gauge on bamboo needles might be different from your gauge on metal needles, even if the needles are exactly the same size. Different yarns will also affect your gauge. The more socks you knit, the more experience with your own gauge you will have and the fewer gauge swatches you'll need to make, but until you get an idea of where your gauge tends to be, you'll need to swatch a bit. Most sock patterns will usually give gauge in stockinette stitch so cast on about 20 stitches onto the DPN's you plan to use and start knitting in stockinette. Now I should probably tell you to knit your gauge swatch in the round, but honestly I've always just knit mine back and forth and so far everything has worked out just fine. I usually knit for about an inch (again, I should probably tell you that bigger swatches are more accurate than tiny, postage stamp swatches, but whatever) and then start checking my gauge. Lay a ruler down on the little swatch and start counting stitches per inch. If you're happy with the look of the stitches (tight stitches on socks are a good thing and make the socks wear longer, but too-tight stitches on socks can make your hands turn into painful claws of misery that you won't be able to straighten out for months - use your own judgement here) and you like the way the yarn and needles are playing together, write down your gauge as the number of stitches per inch. If you're looking for a specific gauge, remember that smaller and grippier needles will give you more stitches per inch while bigger and more slippery needles will give you fewer stitches per inch. If you're just starting to knit socks, try to play around with different needle materials and lengths until you find something you like. My favorites are 6 inch bamboo needles - they are slick enough to work quickly but grippy enough that they don't fall out. They are also flexible which is easier on my hands. The 6 inch length doesn't get caught in the cuff of a long sleeved shirt the way I've had 7 inch needles do. Needle choice is personal, keep playing with different options until you find what works for you.
- Proportions - This is something I've figured out after knitting a bunch of socks. It just hit me one day that there is a tendency for most sock patterns to follow a set of proportions. There are 3 important sizing numbers (possibly 4, depending on the relationship between the size of your feet and the size of your leg/ankle area - we'll cover this in the adapting sock patterns part) in every sock. The first is the number of stitches around the leg of your sock. This is the primary number that the other numbers are based on. The second number is the number of stitches in the heel flap and the third number is how the toe shaping works. For the majority of top down sock patterns, the proportions work like this: Cast on A stitches (A is the number of stitches around the leg of your sock). Work until it's time to start the heel. Leave "1/2 of A" stitches on needles for the instep and work the remaining "1/2 of A" stitches for the heel flap. Work "1/2 of A" rows for the heel flap. To begin the heel turn, slip one and then purl "1/4 of A" stitches, P2tog, P1, turn. Work the heel turn, pick up stitches for the gusset and continue down the foot, working the instep stitches as established and decreasing in the gusset area until you have "A" stitches again. Continue working the foot until it's time to start the toe decreases. Decreasing 4 stitches on each decrease row, work a decrease row every other row until you have "1/2 of A" stitches left, then work a decrease row every row until you have "1/4 of A" stitches left. Kitchener stitch them together for the toe and you've got a sock. (A real pattern would have more detail of course, this is just to illustrate how all of the major parts of the sock are based on a single number or fractions of that number.)
I realize this sounds a bit complicated, but pull out a top down sock pattern and look at it. Download a free one from Ravelry if you don't own any sock patterns. Without possessing any psychic powers, I can tell you that the majority of sock patterns using 64 stitches around will have a 32 stitch wide heel flap worked for 32 rows. You'll work toe decreases every other row until you have 32 stitches, then every row until you have 16 stitches remaining. If you're looking at a 72 stitch sock, you'll probably have a 36 stitch heel flap worked over 36 rows and you'll work toe decreases every other row until you have 36 stitches left and then every row until you have either 20 or 16 stitches remaining. In this case, you are decreasing to a multiple of 4 so you have to juggle the numbers a bit.
Once you see how the parts of the sock relate to each other as proportions, it's much easier to resize them. It's also much easier to figure out where to make changes to fit the shape of the feet you're knitting socks for.
Here is a sample sock for you to create to your personal gauge and the proportions of a sock made to fit that gauge. This will fit an average shaped foot. If you do not have an average shaped foot, hang in there and the next part of this little sock adventure will have directions for compensating for non-average feet. Please note that I say average shaped foot, not average sized foot. This pattern can be adapted for anyone from children to large men. Babies have differently shaped feet and usually chubby ankles, so I don't recommend using this basic sock pattern for them.
- Make a gauge swatch and figure out how many stitches per inch you are getting. Use any yarn weight and needles of appropriate size. Write down your gauge here:_____Stitches per inch.
- Measure your foot (or the foot of the person who's getting these socks) around the ball of the foot (or the widest part). Foot measurement:______ Inches around.
- Multiply the number of stitches you are getting per inch by your foot measurement. Write that down here:_____.
- Now, there is an option at this point regarding ease. Some people like their socks to fit snugly - if that's you, multiply the number you just got by 90% or 0.90. If you don't want your socks to fit snugly, don't change anything. Write down your new number here or the same number from Step 3 depending on the choices you made:_____.
- The math will work out better if your primary number is divisible by 4. If necessary, add or subtract from your number from Step 4 until it's divisible by 4. (Math refresher: if a number is divisible by 4, you can divide 4 into it evenly - 12, 48, 64, 72, 80 are all divisible by 4.) Write down your new number that's divisible by 4 here:_____.
- The number in Step 5 is your primary number or "A." This is the number that all your other numbers will be related to. Anytime I refer to this number, I will call it "A" with the quotes and everything. If I say "1/2 of A", you'll need to divide "A" by 2. If I say "1/4 of A", you'll need to divide "A" by 4. Don't worry, it's pretty easy.
- Cast on "A" stitches and divide them evenly over 4 DPN's. (I know, after all that math you forgot we were even knitting socks, didn't you?)
- Join without twisting stitches and work K1, *P2, K2, rep from * to last stitch, end K1 for as many rounds as desired for a cuff.
- Switch to stockinette stitch (Knit every round) and work until the leg is the desired length before the heel flap. Or keep going in the rib - they're your socks, go crazy!
- Now we'll start the heel flap. The heel flap will be worked over "1/2 of A" stitches. The other stitches will be held for the instep. Turn your work and work a WS row as follows: Slip 1, P remaining heel flap stitches. Turn your work and *Slip 1, Knit 1, rep from * to end of heel flap stitches. You've now worked 2 rows of the heel flap. Continue working these two rows until you've worked "1/2 of A" rows total in the heel flap, ending with a RS row.
- Start the heel turn as follows. (WS row) Slip 1, P "1/4 of A" stitches (the total number of stitches on your right needle after this step will be "1/4 of A" plus 1), P2tog, P1, turn. Next row (RS) Slip 1, K3, SSK, K1, turn.
- Now that the heel turn is begun, you'll complete it as follows. WS rows: Turn, Sl 1, P to 1 stitch before the gap (there's a little gap between the stitches you've already worked in the heel turn and those waiting to be worked), end P2tog, P1. RS Rows: Turn, Sl 1, K to 1 stitch before the gap, end SSK, K1. Continue repeating these two rows until you've picked up and worked all the stitches from the heel flap.
- Divide the heel stitches over 2 needles. With the needle on the left (the one with the working yarn on it, pick up and knit stitches along the side of the heel flap, down to the joint between heel flap and instep stitches. It's more important to pick up enough stitches so you don't have holes here than it is to pick up a specific number of stitches. Work across the instep stitches either in stockinette or in the rib pattern, whatever you were doing right before you started the heel flap. Then pick up stitches along the other side of the heel flap. Try to get the same number of stitches you did the first time, but if you get one more or one less, you can just work an extra decrease on the side with the extra stitch later. Extra decreases aren't noticeable, holes are, so pick up what you need to not leave holes. Knit across the heel stitches and then back across the first gusset stitches. You will have completed this round when the working yarn is between the gusset stitches on the right and the first needle of instep stitches on the left. (New rounds begin with the instep stitches.)
- Work one round even. Keep instep stitches in pattern (probably either stockinette or rib) and keep heel and gusset stitches in stockinette.
- Decrease round - Work instep stitches in pattern. Heel/gusset stitches should be worked as K1, SSK, K to last 3 stitches of round, end K2tog, K1.
- Work the previous two rounds (decreasing every other round) until your total stitch count is "A" again. If you have an extra stitch on one side or the other, on the final decrease round, only decrease on that one side to get your stitch count back to "A."
- Work even until the foot of the sock reaches the point between your big toe and it's neighbor (where a flip flop would go).
- Begin Toe Decreases. (If you're working the top of the foot in rib, you'll switch to stockinette for the toe.) Decrease Round: K1, SSK, K to last 3 stitches of instep, K2tog, K1, (sole of sock) K1, SSK, knit to last 3 stitches of sole, K2tog, K1. You've just decreased 4 stitches in this round.
- Work one round even.
- Continue alternating the Decrease Round with an even round until you have "1/2 of A" stitches left.
- Work the Decrease Round only until you have "1/4 of A" stitches left (you might need to tweak this number a bit if "1/4 of A" isn't divisible by 4.) Get as close as you can to "1/4 of A" in this type of situation.
- Kitchener Stitch the toe closed.
I hope this helped you to see how a sock is actually constructed. There's no magic in the numbers, they're all just proportions based on the gauge. (Obviously you can't write down your personal gauge numbers in my blog post, but once I get this turned into a pdf and uploaded to Ravelry, you can print out the sock knitting directions and make notes to your heart's content.)
I won't be turning this into a pdf file and uploading to Ravelry until I finish this whole little series, so if you have any questions or comments, let me know and I can add to it. I do plan to attempt to do this in several pdf's so you can print only what you need. Obviously you might want the sock directions more than once, but the other information you might only print once or just read online depending on your own preferences.