Anatomy of Sock Design Part I: Getting to the Cast-On

by exercisebeforeknitting

I am so glad to hear that many of you intend to enter some socks in my wee little contest this spring! I cannot wait to see your designs! I encourage everyone to give it a go. Lately, I have received many emails from knitters interested in entering, but intimidated by the design process, the prospect of judging, and the field of competitors. I will do my best to allay these concerns. Although it is a competition, I hope it is clear that the spirit of the contest is most certainly positive and supportive. My only interest is to encourage exciting new work. Who cares if you are not an established designer? You have ideas about socks, don’t you? Sock design should not be intimidating to anyone who has ever knitted a sock: after all, socks are basically two tubes joined by a heel and capped with a toe. The heel and toe are the only challenges of basic sock construction! If you choose to, you can design a completely new way of knitting socks; my point is simply that you needn’t do this to enter and be competitive.

There, are you convinced you can do this? I hope so. Since I am working on my own pattern for the contest – a thanks-for-entering pattern for all participants – I thought it might be worthwhile to document how I go about designing a sock. I am by no means an expert at this, but I’ll certainly share how I work best. I will divide this up into three separate posts: getting to the cast-on, heels & toes, and writing the pattern. Let’s start with the first segment: planning out a design well enough to cast on.

Anatomy of Sock Design

Part I: Getting to the Cast-On


First, I start with my audience. Who will knit this sock? People who designed socks for my contest – in other words, this will not likely be anyone’s first knitted sock. Therefore, the pattern should be challenging enough for somewhat experienced sock knitters, but not so complicated and difficult as to be intimidating. The design must be fun to knit, otherwise I will lose interest in finishing the sample and you will not get a sock pattern. So far, my criteria are 1) not easy; 2) not super hard; 3) fun to knit; and I’m going to add 4) pretty.


Next, I think about what I want for the main body of the sock. Texture? Lace? Cables? Twisted stitches? Slipped stitches? Color work? If I am to enjoy the knitting, lace, twisted stitches, and slipped stitches are out. Although I like how those styles look, I find them rather fiddly to work. Since tedious knitting will not bring back my sock mojo, they’re out. Cables are out too, as I just finished a large cabled pullover and my wrists need a break. More about the sweater later – we’re talking socks here, remember? Focus! Between texture and color work, I’ll choose color any day.

Plus, I just found the most amazing stitch dictionary in the history of time: Latviesu Cimdu Raksti: Ornaments in Latvian Gloves and Mittens by Irma Lesina. I found a reference to it Lizbeth Upitis’ Latvian Mitten book and decided to look it up. If you can find a copy, it’s worth the hunt. It took my university’s library 8 weeks to get a copy by interlibrary loan – there weren’t many books printed and few remain in circulation today. Written in Latvian, the book contains only mitten and glove plates with traditional designs from Latvia’s four districts of Kurzeme, Latgale, Zumgale, and Vidzeme. I intended to photocopy some stitch patterns I liked, but the book was far too fragile to do this. Instead, I set up my tripod and photographed them. I may have photographed the entire book.***

This particular stitch pattern stood out in my mind: the splotches look like microbes! I’m really tempted to call these socks Culture Socks (bonus play on “culture shock”), but the ladies at my knitting group seem to think that would be rather a turn off.I know they’re right, but wouldn’t it be more fun to think of them as microbes instead of jigsaw puzzle pieces or a houndstooth pattern?? I like microbes. I think I’m going to run with this idea.

Now that I have a stitch pattern, I need to decide how to use it on the sock. That’s easy for me because I want to use it all over. Using two colors for the entire sock requires about as much additional skill as I’d like. After all, if you don’t do it regularly, knitting with two colors can be rather cumbersome. On the other hand, this small stitch pattern is quite easily memorized and will not tie the knitter to a chart. I hope to strike a good balance between complicated and fun to knit.

For several years now, I have made a rather conscious effort to never knit anything twice (excepting a design of my own that needs further testing). I do this for two reasons: 1) I like to learn something from every project to improve my skills; and 2) there are so many patterns I want to knit that I haven’t time to dawdle on any particular one. Because this is how I like to knit, I try to include in my patterns a technique or an idea that may be new to some knitters. For this sock pattern, I will use a corrugated rib cuff, an unusual heel, and some nontraditional striping down to the toe.


Now that I have a plan for the cuff (i.e corrugated ribbing) and a plan for the sock body (i.e. microbe stitch pattern), I’m ready to consider gauge and size. This is where I fly by the seat of my pants a little. Although I am a religious swatcher and swatch washer, I will not swatch for a measly sock. I refuse. Luckily, as long as I don’t care about my sock height (and I don’t), it isn’t entirely necessary. Let me explain. I generally know that I can make a gauge of 7-8 spi with most sock yarns on US 1.5 needles, my preferred sock needles. At its widest point, my calf circumference measures 13.5″ and my ankle circumference measures 8″. If I cast on for an 80-stitch sock and work from the cuff down, the cuff will likely fit somewhere between those two points. If my stranded gauge turns out to be 10 spi, it will be a shorter sock. If my stranded gauge is 8 spi, it will be taller.

Now I have a plan for my 80-stitch sock, beginning with corrugated ribbing and continuing on with the stranded pattern. But wait! Where are my US 1.5 needles? Stewing in an unfinished sock, of course. Unfinished since August 2008, in fact.

Hi, I'm a 10-month-old unfinished sock. Would someone please knit my sole so I could be with my mate? Thanks.

These long unfinished Fascine Braid Socks were the unwitting casualties of my lost interest in sock knitting. The pattern is wonderful, well written, and really pretty. Sadly, I chose the wrong yarn to go with the pattern so Tiennie’s lovely textured pattern can hardly be seen. Since this contest is all about getting me back into knitting socks, I decided to finish this pair, rather than buy a new needle. You may laugh, but I’m not the only one finishing up these nagging projects – MaritzaNovaCarolyn, and Val have all recently finished long languising single socks. It’s a good thing.

A year and a half later,

Alright, now I can begin.

Is this a start on my sock?

I admit that I tried two other color combinations before settling on this one. So far, I like this one a lot. I’m using Louet Gems Fingering Wt in Fern and Teal. Now that I know my gauge from the leg of my sock, I can figure out the decreases I need to do to get down to the ankle.

Culture Socks

I have absolutely no plan yet for the heel, foot, or toe. The good news is that I don’t need one for another couple of days. Knitted progress on my sock has been slow this week because we sold our house and will be moving 600 miles away in less than six weeks (right around the time this contest closes, actually). It should be fun!

Stay tuned for Part II: Heels & Toes.

***I assume this is completely illegal, but what am I supposed to do when I can’t buy a copy of a rare, out-of-print text? I would pay $$$ for this book if it were available!