Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Trouble With Socks

I have a love/hate relationship with sock patterns, and it's been on my mind a lot lately.

To understand why, you need to know a bit about my own personal history with sock knitting. I was drawn into sock knitting five years ago, shortly after devoting my crafty life to knitting. I fell rather in love with the idea of knitting something so ordinary and yet so mysterious at the same time. My first pair was done in a beautiful orange speckled Opal on 2.25 mm needles, following the most excellent instructions of Ann Budd in The Knitter's Handy Book of Patterns. Those socks were made for my Dad, who to this day insists they are the best pair of socks in the world.

As an aside, I knit those socks during a family trip to Tucson. That trip remains one of my most treasured memories because we were there to introduce Princess to her great-grandparents. Mema and Grandaden, my husband's grands, adored my daughter, and I am so grateful she had the chance to spend time with them before they passed. I later knit her first pair of socks from the leftovers of that skein of Opal, and I will always treasure them.

Since then, I have become rather fond of my handknit socks. If you look at my knitting bookshelf (which is overflowing, by the way...) you will see that I have a fairly large collection of pattern books devoted to socks. Lace socks, cabled socks, fair isle socks, historic socks....you name it, I have it. Not to be outdone, a rather large portion of my (admittedly smallish) stash is comprised of sock yarns - mostly handpaints and self-striping. Yum.

The problem is that I never knit anything BUT basic socks, a la Ann Budd.



My earliest socks were heavily influenced by two sources - Lucy Neatby and my guild friends - who all insisted that the best socks were knit at as tight of a gauge as was comfortable for your hands. It was advice I took sincerely to heart, partially because of the challenge. (I've always been fond of taking the most difficult path...) I did, however, want to test this theory, so I knit two pair of socks in matching Opal Brazil to see which I liked best. The socks knit from 2.0 mm needles at a gauge of about 10 stitches per inch won hands down for fit and feel. From that time on, I've knit all of my own socks on 2.0mm needles and all of my gift socks on 2.25 mm.

It is true that socks knit at 10ish stitches/inch take a whole lot longer to knit than socks done at a more reasonable gauge. This is mostly due to the number of stitches required. Most basic socks, for example, call for 64 stitches while mine need 80. Occasionally, this results in peevish fits of jealousy for all of those bloggers who seem to crank out socks faster than they can breath. However, I know in my heart that I am more than repaid for all of this work by the extreme long life of my socks and the happiness of all of those who wear my socks.

Sock designers apparently do not share my opinions. In all of those lovely sock books on my shelf, there are almost no patterns written in a gauge I would use. I've literally only made 3 pair of socks to pattern specs, and was deeply disappointed with each. They tend to slouch, show wear much faster, and the knit stitches just look sloppy. Above all, a sock is a practical item which by nature receives rough treatment. There's no point to knitting them if they are going to fall apart and be uncomfortable.

On top of this, there are few options for sizing outside of the rather silly advice to adjust by using larger or smaller needles. If I had average feet, I'm sure this would not be that big of a deal. Alas, my foot measures a 6 1/2 E!!!! (That's right, an E. You try to find shoes for that foot. It sucks.) Which means I would have to go up....further compounding the gauge problem at hand.

All of this came to a head for me with the recent publication of The Eclectic Sole. While some of the designs thrill me to the depth of my knitter's soul for their beauty and innovation, the gauge makes me want to weep. As I read through the book, I kept asking myself who on earth fits into a sock with only 60 stitches around...but then you see the gauge and you know what the problem is. Then I saw several of my favorite designs knit up in person. I was shocked, and more than a bit horrified with how bad they looked.

Beyond this, though, I do find myself searching through all of my books and patterns, longing to knit some of those beautiful designs. My recent attempts at starting the monkey socks ultimately failed - as do all of my attempts to use these patterns - because I just can't stand the gauge! One just shouldn't be able to see through the sock when it's being worn!


For now, I'll stick with Ann Budd...while continuing to look over at my bookshelf with a wistful expression on my face.

Stay tuned tomorrow for the flip side of the coin.


Bonnie said...

I feel for you! I knit socks (usually) over 64 st on 2.25mm needles and get a fit and a fabric I am satisfied with. I use 2.00mm for the heels and toes.

Many of the patterns in Sensational Knitted Socks can be worked at a gauge of 10 st to the inch in sizes all the way up to a 12-inch foot circumference.

Shelda said...

Well as you know, I share your frustration with the loose gauges in published socks. My feet are also wide, and my ankles thicker than your average bear, so I've more or less gotten used to rewriting all patterns.

Although as we also discussed, not every pattern really lends itself to that.

I completely reworked Nancy Bush's "Birch Leaf Socks" from A Gathering of Lace. I drafted the lace wider, and reorganized things a bit, adding stitches here and there. I think those are knitted with about 84 or even 88 stitches. They're beautiful, and I'm glad I did it, but I also knit far more pair plain ribbed socks!