The day I completed my first sock was a day of liberation. For years I’d been mystified by socks, never daring try them on my own. I learned that although knitted socks look complex and daunting, they’re actually one of the most logical items to knit.
What follows is a simple format for knitting an extremely basic pair of socks. This pattern follows the common top-down technique, which means you start literally at the top (the cuff) and work your way down to (and around) the heel, along the foot, and ending at the toe. This is only one of many ways you can knit socks and knit each component of a sock. Once you start looking, you’ll discover an entire universe of sock designs and structure out there. This pattern is intended to help you get started.
If you already have a basic top-down pattern, then you can use these instructions as a back-up tutorial of each step. And if you don’t have a pattern and feel comfortable experimenting, that’s even better!
First, you need to decide on your yarn. The quantity of yarn you’ll need for this sock depends entirely on the gauge of the yarn you choose and the size of the sock you want to knit. This is intended to be a very flexible set of instructions. For a women’s sock in fingering-weight yarn with simple ribbing and no complex patterning, you’ll want at least 400 yards; in sport-weight yarn, at least 300 yards.
The sample sock shown in these photographs was knit using a thicker yarn so that you could see each stitch more clearly.
The Essence of Socks
The most essential number you’ll need—one that will impact everything else in your sock—is based on the circumference of your calf. Choose a spot that’s near the widest area to be covered by the sock and measure it. Because you’ll want your socks to fit snugly, reduce this number by 25%.
For example: If your calf measures 10 inches (25cm), subtract 25% to get 7.5 inches (19cm).
To turn this measurement into a meaningful knitting number, multiply it by your yarn’s gauge per inch. Round the number up or down, if necessary, to achieve an even number. (Generally you’ll want to stick with a yarn that’s fingering to DK weight. The thicker the yarn, the bigger each stitch, and the more potentially uncomfortable the sock may be to wear.)
For example: Say I’m knitting a pair of socks for myself using fingering-weight yarn that knits up at 7 stitches per inch, and my goal calf circumference is 7.5 (19cm) inches. I’d multiply 7 times 7.5 and get 52.5, which I’d round out to 52 stitches, to keep my number even.
This is the number of stitches you’ll cast on for the cuff. If you need help casting on or using DPNs, read our tutorial, Getting Started with DPNs in Four Easy Steps.
After casting on, joining your needles and working in the round, you’ll continue knitting this number of stitches through the cuff (including any ribbing you decide to add) and down the leg until you’re ready to begin the heel.
For the cuff and leg, ribbing adds great flexibility while stockinette is more form-fitting. So if you’re knitting socks for a friend or are generally unsure about sizing, you may want to have a ribbed cuff and leg. In the knitted sock you see here, I chose a k1/p1 rib.
The heel flap is essentially a square that will cover your heel area. To make the flap, take half of your overall stitches and place them on one DPN. I usually place the other stitches on one DPN as well, although you can leave them on two DPNs, dividing the stitches so that they sit evenly on both needles.
For example: If my sock has 52 stitches, I’ll place 26 stitches on the DPN.
You’ll work these stitches back and forth separately from everything else. Don’t worry, you’ll join it back with the other stitches later.
We’re going to follow a simple slip-stitch technique for the heel flap that gives extra strength and an almost rib-like thickness. This technique works as follows:
Right side: *Slip 1 stitch, knit 1 stitch. Repeat from * to end.
Wrong side: Purl all stitches. (Some people prefer to slip the first stitch and purl the rest. This is up to you.)
Heel flaps are normally 2 to 2 1/2 inches (5-6cm) long. An easier way to figure them out is to simply knit as many rows as you have stitches on the needle. Remember this number, because it’ll come in handy later.
Now you’ll add the “L” shape to your socks. At the bottom of your heel flap you’ll work a series of short rows and decreases. This forms the cup of the heel. The first time you turn a heel, you’ll want to pick a time when you can concentrate fully on what you’re doing.
Over time you’ll discover that you can “read” your stitches and turn a heel without needing to consult any pattern. For now, just follow these steps:
Right side: Slip your first stitch, then knit to the middle of the row. Knit two stitches beyond the center, and then work the decrease as follows: slip 1 stitch, knit 1 stitch, pass the slipped stitch over the knitted stitch (you’ll often see this written as S1, K1, PSSO). After the decrease, knit 1 additional stitch, and then turn your work around so that the wrong side now faces you.
Wrong side: Slip your first stitch, purl 5 stitches, then decrease by purling 2 stitches together. Purl 1 more stitch, then turn the work again so that the right side is now facing you.
You’ll notice that the decreases have created visible gaps between the stitches around them. As you work your way out from the center, always slipping your first stitch, you’ll want to join the stitches on either side of that visible gap, using the decrease we just established. You’ll always want to knit or purl one more stitch after the decrease, which keeps you moving toward the end of the needle.
Here’s a recap of the decreases:
On knit sides, you’ll join the stitches by slipping 1 stitch, knitting 1 stitch, and passing the slipped stitch over the knitted stitch (once again, the S1, K1, PSSO in action).
On purl sides, you’ll simply purl two stitches together.
It’s important that you be consistent in your decrease technique because each produces a different slant to the work. You want to have clean, uninterrupted lines.
On your last two rows, you’ll decrease over the gap but won’t have any stitches beyond the gap to knit or purl. That’s OK.
Tip: At the end of any wrong-sided row, you should have the same number of stitches at each end of the decrease gaps. If you don’t, undo your rows until you do have even stitches.
Instep Gusset: Rejoining the Sock
Now you need to incorporate this flap back into the context of a round, whole sock. How do you do this? By picking up and knitting stitches along each edge of the flap.
To determine the number of stitches you need to pick up and knit along each edge, simply count the total number of rows in the flap and pick up half as many stitches. (If you knitted as many rows as you have stitches on the needle, as recommended earlier, it’s even easier to figure out this number.)
For example: My heel flap had 26 stitches at the beginning, so I knitted 26 rows before turning the heel. Now I’ll simply pick up 13 stitches on either side.
With the right side facing you, and having worked to the end of a knit row on the turned heel flap, pick up and knit your stitches along the left edge of the flap.
Knit across the instep, keeping all those stitches on their original needle.
Pick up and knit your stitches along the right edge of the heel flap.
At this point you’ll have stitches on four needles. We need to do some housecleaning to redistribute those stitches evenly back onto three needles.
Right now you’ve finished picking up the stitches along the final edge of the heel flap. Now count the stitches on the heel itself (the bottom needle in the above photo) and knit across half of those. This marks the end of your round. Slide the remaining unworked stitches onto your next needle, which has the stitches you picked up from the first side of the heel flap. Now you’re set!
Count your stitches to make sure each of the heel needles has the same number. You don’t want to move any of the stitches on the instep needle—those stitches are fine.
For easy identification, let’s label these needles as follows:
H1: The first needle of heel stitches immediately after the center of the heel. (The left needle in the above photo.)
Instep: The needle of stitches across the instep. (The top needle in the photo.)
H2: The needle of heel stitches that follows the instep and ends at the center of the heel. (The right needle in the above photo.)
More help with gusset stitches:
→ Check out Grumperina’s tutorial on picking up gusset stitches “the pretty way”.
→ You can also read a tutorial on the Socknitters Web site.
Tip: Quite often you may notice a bit of a hole where the heel flap meets the instep. You can close up any holes later with a darning needle and extra yarn. Some people prefer to pick up an extra stitch at the end of H1 and the beginning of H2, slide each extra stitch onto the corresponding end of the instep needle, and knit that extra stitch together with the first and last stitches of the instep. Your instep stitch count will stay the same but you’ve tugged the two edges together a little more closely.
Instep Gusset Shaping
Now that you’ve picked up your stitches and evenly distributed them on your needles, you’re ready to begin knitting in the round again. You’ll always begin your round at the center of the heel, then knit the instep needle, and finally the other heel side.
However, you need to do a series of decreases on either side of the heel to reduce the total number of stitches on all your needles back to…drum roll please…that very first number you cast on! (Unless you have an unusually wide calf, in which case you can reduce the number by a few more. Socks are flexible.)
This process is called “instep gusset shaping,” although you don’t actually decrease any stitches on the instep needle. Instead, you work decreases at each end of the heel needles instead.
Here’s how it works:
H1: Knit to the last 3 stitches on your needle. Knit 2 stitches together (K2Tog), then knit 1 stitch
Instep: Knit across entire needle.
You’ll keep doing this until the H1 and H2 needles each have half the total number of stitches that are on the instep needle. This makes the top and bottom halves of your sock equal.
For example: If my socks have 26 stitches across the instep needle, I’ll keep decreasing until each heel needle has 13 stitches. The total number of stitches equals 52, which is what I cast on at the very beginning.
Now comes the easy part! Simply knit around and around until the foot of the sock reaches two inches (5cm) from the tip of your toes. (This is a general guideline—feel free to vary this if you have long toes, short toes, or simply like baggy socks.)
At some point all good things must come to an end—even socks. Now it’s time to decrease the stitches so that your toe has a nice sculpted look and snug fit. The toe decrease is similar to the instep gusset shaping. This time you’ll decrease stitches on the instep needle, too.
Here’s how you do it:
H1: Knit to the last 3 stitches, K2Tog, K1.
Instep: Knit 1 stitch, Sl1, K1, PSSO. Then knit to the last 3 stitches on your needle. K2Tog, K1.
H2: Knit 1 stitch, Sl1, K1, PSSO, then knit all remaining stitches.
As with the instep gusset shaping, you’ll alternate decrease rounds with plain rounds so that the decreases aren’t too abrupt.
How do you know when to stop? It’s a matter of personal preference. If you like a wide toe, you’ll want to stop the decreases early. If you like Grinch-like socks with pointed toes, you can decrease until there’s nothing left.
I usually stop when the toe is about 1.5 inches (4cm) wide, but you can go wider or narrower depending on your preference.
Toe Grafting: Kitchener 101
Now you need to close up the toe hole. You can’t just run a strand through the remaining stitches and pull it tight. You’ll need to graft the top and bottom stitches together to create a flat seam across the toe.
The most common stitch for this is the Kitchener stitch, which weaves your stitches together and leaves no trace of a seam. Much mystique surrounds Kitchener, but it’s actually pretty easy once you understand what you’re doing.
Once you’ve decreased to the desired toe width, continue knitting across H1 to the last stitch. I tend not to work a plain round after the final decrease round—this keeps the toe from sticking out awkwardly.
Now you should have two needles facing you, both with the same number of stitches. The needle I call “front needle” is the one facing you when the sock is laid out as it would be on your foot. The so-called “back needle” is, you guessed it, the one in back.
Cut the yarn, leaving a generous tail (I usually leave 12 inches, or 30cm). Thread the tail through a darning needle and take a deep breath. You’re ready to start your Kitchener!
Step 1: Thread the darning needle through the first stitch on the front needle, in the direction you’d use if you were going to purl that stitch.
Step 2: Run your darning needle through the first stitch on the back needle as if you were going to knit it. When you pull the needle and make your tail snug, always let the tail wind around the side of both needles and not over them.
Step 3: Thread the darning needle back through the first stitch on your front needle, as if to knit it, and let the stitch slide off your needle.
Step 4: Thread your darning needle through the next stitch on the front needle, as if to purl.
Step 5: Thread the darning needle through the first stitch on your back needle, as if to purl, and let that stitch slide off the needle.
Step 6: Now thread the darning needle through the next stitch on the back needle, as if to knit.
Tip: You’ll always work each stitch on each needle twice. The first time you work it, you’ll be working it in the opposite direction of the fabric facing you—that is, on the front needle, you’ll work the stitch first purlwise (because the smooth knit stitches are facing you); and on the back needle, you’ll work the stitch first knitwise (because the loopy purl stitches are facing you).
The second time you work that stitch, you’ll be working it in the direction that the fabric is facing you (knitwise on the front needle, and purlwise on the back needle). And once you’ve worked the stitch that matches the direction of the fabric, you can slip it off the needle and proceed to work the next stitch on that same needle (this time working it in the opposite direction of what’s facing you).
Repeat steps 3 to 6 until you have 1 stitch remaining on each needle.
Second-to-last step: Slip the darning needle knitwise through the stitch on the front needle and let it slip off the needle.
Final step: Slip the darning needle purlwise through the final stitch on the back needle and let it slip off. At this point I like to thread the darning needle back into the sock and weave in the end securely on the inside.
If you think you’ve caught the sock bug, try to get your hands on a copy of my book, The Knitter’s Book of Socks. It contains tons of information on twist and ply and fiber, all related to the unique wearability requirements of socks, plus a gorgeous selection of patterns organized by the ideal kind of yarn with which they should be knit. It’s a novel concept, but my goal was to help you knit socks that deliver 100% knitting and wearing satisfaction every single time.
- Unless it’s specifically labeled a sock yarn, most yarns are labeled at a looser gauge than you’d use for socks. I almost always use smaller needles and a finer gauge for socks than I’d use for sweaters made from the same yarn.
- Before you experiment too broadly with stitchwork, remember that these socks will need to fit inside shoes, and they’ll spend a lot of time rubbing against your foot. Cables and bobbles look nice, but they might not pass the long-term comfort test.
- Choose yarns carefully. A yarn that’s too bulky or too firm will feel uncomfortable on your foot, especially when you squeeze it into your shoe and walk around on it.
- Choose fibers carefully. Wool tends to breathe well, which is good for feet, and their innate elasticity will help the sock hold your foot in a snug fit. Fibers with less crimp and less elasticity—for example, cotton, silk, soy, and even alpaca—may stretch out of shape over time.
- If you’re using multiple colors within a single row, be sure to keep your work loose so that it will be able to stretch when you pull the sock over your heel.
- If you have loose strands hanging out of your sock, don’t tie them together and cut off the excess yarn. There’s a 99% chance that the knot will come undone over time, leaving you with a big hole and no extra yarn to fix it. Instead, leave long strands and weave them in later.
The core of this article was originally published in October 2001 and was updated and expanded in 2007.