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

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!

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16 comments so far

  1. Maryse on

    Looks good so far! Nice colors, patterns and the name seems fun to me!

  2. dclulu on

    Those are gorgeous! And I would totally make a pattern called Culture Sock.

  3. Melanie on

    Thank you! I was about to give up on the whole idea (I’m one of those newbies who’s intimidated out of her wits), not because I don’t stand a chance of winning (I can deal with that) but because I’m afraid I’ll bore the judges to death, and losing this many terrific knitters and designers because of my boring design…? Well, it would gnaw at my conscience.

    But your blog post revives my interest again, nevermind the risk of Death-by-Boredom. That’s the judges’ problem. :)

    PS: How do you achieve stretchibility (or is it stretchiness?) with colorwork?
    PPS: Love the Culture Sock name.

  4. Susan on

    I would love to enter, if I can find the time. We’ll see. :)

    I love fair isle and colorwork, too, but I find that knitted fabric loses a lot of stretch with stranded colorwork, so as much as I like the look, I’ve avoided it in socks thusfar. Hats, mittens, no problem. I suppose as long as one is careful with gauge and sizing, it wouldn’t be a problem…but do you have any thoughts on this?

  5. Marianne C on

    I really appreciate you putting down your design process in writting. I think you are offering a valuable lesson!

  6. Kristy on

    yay elinor, you’re a good encourager. but alas, i know for certain that i can’t compete this time :(

    i think culture socks is a great name, ang the pattern looks interesting so far.

  7. Meg on

    I’m not exactly sure about copyright, but I’m almost positive that as long as the book is out of print, you can copy it as long as you are not doing it for profit (ie, not selling copies of the book.)

    I love the colors of this sock! So spring-y!

  8. Ann on

    Thanks for sharing the process – it’s enlightening. I like your choice of colors for the sock & the corrugated rib looks great. It’s my goal this year to knit fair isle socks.

  9. Danielle on

    I like your idea for a pattern name. But I like bad puns, so I might not be the best audience to judge naming conventions. Also, what am I doing on the internet? I have a sock to design!

  10. Linda on

    Well… I am going to try, and of course the idea that appeals most is something I have minimal experience with. Mostly worried about the deadline. Bought the yarn today! Thank you for the encouragement–L

  11. Kim on

    totally off subject but… moving?! I know I don’t see you that often but I’ll miss you at knitting group.

    I can’t wait to see the sock patterns.

  12. stella from new zealand on

    I’m in love already, i hope the pattern will be up soon?
    and here in NZ it is ok to copy a book that is out of print and can not be obtained via other means … I know some countries have different laws – mostly it is about valuing work, i that you are not to deprive the author of income by copying rather than buying the book … but when the author or publisher has no copies to sell … and you are not making money from it or defaming them .. it would morally be ok.

  13. francois on

    Here in the UK it you can copy short sections of a book for certain purposes (out of print or not) but not the whole thing. Thats illegal. Just because you really want a book and there is no way to have it doesn’t make it right. You can’t have everything you want – I’m sure all our mothers have said that to us more than once!

    Sorry, I don’t want to come across like the internet police or something. A lot of people (particularly on the net) seem to believe whatever they want to believe about copyright depending on what they want, regardless of the law. If I were breaking the law of my country then I probably wouldn’t post about it on a public blog. But its not like anyone is going to come prosecute you…or are they? Has anyone heard of a case?

  14. Luni on

    You picked a winning color combo and wonderful yarn, how could the socks not be fabulous? It’s funny, I don’t mind slip stitch but consider fair-isle fiddly. After reading this, I may rethink that opinion. I must try fair isle in socks sometime.
    btw, I e-mailed you about not being able to reset my password. I just signed up again, so you can ignore that. Now I have two contest accounts, but since only one of them has pattern info, I suppose it doesn’t matter.

  15. Keya on

    I was so excited about your sock contest!! Then I started designing a pair. I thought, “How hard can this be; I make it up as I go along all of the time.” Well, let me tell you! Apparently, the thought of competing against other more experienced knitters of sock has me in a state of malaise. I’ve torn out these babies so many times that I’m down to one sock from the two-at-a-time that I started with AND it’s taking over my life! When I finish these babies, it will be the accomplishment of a life time, even if I don’t make it by the deadline.

  16. get wso on

    Absolutely pent articles, regards for entropy. “The last time I saw him he was walking down Lover’s Lane holding his own hand.” by Fred Allen.

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