Friday, February 13, 2009

Suna's Thoughts on the Tops of Socks

The most important part of a sock, and an often ignored part, is the top edge. Whether it’s your cast-on edge or where you bind off and say, “Ta da, I’m done!” at the top edge, you sure want it to be wide enough to fit around the part of your (or the recipient’s) leg where it will hit.

This sounds simple, but is it? I sure know a lot of fine knitters whose socks look great, but they have trouble getting them on, or they can get them on, but not pull them up all the way. What’s the problem? Are they bad at casting on or binding off?

Heck, I can now admit that I once was one of those people. When I knit my first sock (shown here), I followed the instructions fairly literally, so when it said to cast on X number of stitches, I did so. I used the normal cast on I used at the time, which was the backward loop method. I am not sure, but it may have been the only method I knew back then. Maybe I knew the long-tail method, but it never occurred to me to use it in that context. When I finished that pitiful attempt at a sock (why did I use the darkest possible yarn on it, so I couldn’t see to pick up stitches, or notice when one fell off my tiny double-pointed needles?) I proudly tried it on. Oops. I’m a loose knitter, so thankfully my backward loop cast on is fairly loose, but it does not create a sock that fits the width of my calf easily.

On the next pair or two I paid more attention and cast on very loosely, and even tried casting on over two needles held together, but I didn’t like the way the edge looked that way. Finally I bit the bullet and used a long-tail cast on. Yay, that one is not bad. Still, you need to cast on quite loosely with this method, as well. I used to teach students to cast on over two needles, but often this just made a hideous edge that looks all loose and untidy when the sock is in a relaxed state.

Finally, I came across a pattern that suggested the knitted cast-on. It’s similar to the cable cast on, and is the one I like to teach new knitters because it so closely resembles actual knitting. Once they know how to do the cast-on, they just have to switch to sliding the new stitch off the old needle and on to the new, and they’re knitting!

Now, just doing a knitted cast-on does not lead to the ideal sock. It still has to be fairly loose, which can be a problem for insecure new knitters or people who just knit tightly. In my efforts to come up with a smooth way to do this cast-on, I inadvertently found an easy way to add a bit of looseness without going overboard. Here’s what I do (and actually, I do this for most projects I cast on):

1. Make a slip knot and put it on one needle.
2. Insert the second needle as if to knit, wrap the yarn and pull a loop through
3. Use the second needle to place that loop back on the first needle BUT, do not remove the second needle from the loop.
4. Slightly readjust the positioning of the second needle so that it is once again in the position to start a new stitch.
5. Wrap the yarn around the first needle and pull a loop through.
6. Repeat steps 3-5.

What does this achieve? It gives you economy of motion, for one, because you don’t have to remove and reinsert the second needle, just reposition it. That makes the casting on go more quickly. But more importantly, your cast-on stitches never get tightened over just one needle. You finish the stitch with it wrapped around BOTH needles. I think this is pretty cool, and I hope it makes a wee bit of sense. People get it when I show it to them, but explaining in words may not be enough. Let me know and I’ll try to get a video clip made.

Now, if you want to get all sophisticated, you can try making a cuff, which, when sewn down loosely, works great. If you add a simple picot hem edge (which is just a YO, K2tog every so many stitches), ooh, that is nice!

By the way, this is not the first time I’ve waxed poetic about casting on. I must care about it a lot! In 2007 I wrote a post with information on teaching the cast-on that might be helpful, and I have a short post on pros and cons of three cast-ons that sums up some of this content.

OK, but what happens when you knit a toe up sock and you are ending your sock at the top of the leg? We all know people who bind off so tightly that it affects the shape of their final product. I often suggest using a larger needle to bind off in such cases. That solves some problems, right there.

My favorite option is a variant of a Russian bind off that comes from last week’s Wednesday Wonder, Wendy Johnson. She describes it in this post (just scroll down a little, it’s in the Q&A section). When I can remember how the heck to start it, I think this is my favorite technique. It never ends up too tight and it looks pretty good, too. Try it, you’ll like it!

The EZ stretchy sewn bind-off (this is a link to instructions by Denise Powell) also works well—I just find it too fussy for my taste, takes too long, and requires a darning needle. Just not for me, but great if you like it!

Another fun option that I have used in lacy or otherwise delicate toe-up socks is the picot cast off. I used it on the OpArt blanket I made recently. This tutorial tells you one way to do it. The picot bind-off really stretches nicely but comes back together when the sock is in a relaxed state.

If you want some more fun ways to start or end socks, I must recommend the book that opened my eyes to a world of possibilities, and that’s Cool Socks, Warm Feet, by Lucy Neatby. I vividly remember the day I bought it, at a conference in Kansas City, Missouri with a bunch of my friends. I made all kinds of interesting socks from that book, including one pair with a really cool crenelated bind off (seen here). Darn it, I sold that pair. I need to try that again! And look at that afterthought heel, too!

I'm not sure what got me started on this topic, but I do I hope that some of my suggestions will help you make socks that you can pull up as high as you want without cutting off your circulation! The socks will look more professional, and you'll be proud to wear them or give them as gifts--gifts that will be worn!


  1. I use a knitted cast on, as well; and a needle at least two or three sizes bigger then I'll use on the project; depending on the amount of stretch I want in the edge.

    But another alternative is a hemmed edge, on a toe-up sock. Knit to the top, purl a row, knit a few more rows on a size smaller needle, and then tack the raw stitches to the inside of the sock.

  2. Thanks, Rebecca. I used to know a Rebecca Z in high school, by the way. Anyway, I thought I'd mentioned a hem, but maybe I forgot. I do like that edge, because it is nice and clean. Just don't tack too tightly!

  3. Interesting those bind offs. I never knit toe up, so I have to cast on with flexibility.


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