Inside the Knitter’s Book of Socks

Socks buffer us from life’s hard edges. Whether knit by hand or produced by machine, socks serve as a good set of tires for our feet. They grab the road and get us to our destination in maximum comfort with minimal slippage. They are, in essence, the ultimate original high-performance knitwear.

But just like tires, not all socks are alike. Some wear faster than others, or they don’t grip quite as well, or they suffer from a blowout when we least expect it. I’ve seen gorgeous socks fail miserably, both on my own feet and those of others.

This intrigues me. Why can’t we knit socks out of anything we want? If I’m the so-called Yarn Whisperer, I should know the answers, right?

I began researching the unique wearability issues of socks. The more I dug, the more material I found. Interesting, intriguing information that I hadn’t put together before.

Things like regain and wicking, the modulus of elasticity and elastic recovery and negative ease, and the existence of a machine—called the Martindale Abrasion Tester—that actually measures a sock’s wearability.

The Sock Trinity

Over time, three consistent qualities revealed themselves: durability, elasticity, and the ability to manage moisture. They became my sock trinity.

Durability is the obvious one. I was fascinated to discover—and it makes sense when you think about it—that strength alone isn’t enough.

You can have extremely strong fibers, but if they aren’t given sufficient twist and ply energy they’ll still pull apart and your fabric will ultimately fail. The real killer? That slower, quieter, more insidious back-and-forth abrasion. The kind that a sock experiences every day will slowly pull fibers apart.

All fibers can absorb some degree of force before breaking. Collectively, this quality is called “tensile strength,” while the strength of each individual fiber is called “tenacity.” Different fibers have different tensile strengths. But did you know that a fiber’s tenacity can be totally different from its tensile strength? Yet another place where twist, ply, and blending come in.

Elasticity also has its nuance. For example, it’s not enough for a fiber to be able to stretch, it also needs to be able to return to its original form. Knit two identical socks—one from pure silk and one from a 50/50 blend of silk and wool—and you’ll have two totally different elasticity experiences. One sock will stretch over your foot, the other may not.

But that last quality in the trio, moisture management, really surprised me. Did you know that the human foot has an average of 250,000 sweat glands? And that, on any given day, each of your feet will release a full eight ounces of water? That’s one cup of water per foot. Knit a sock out of a moisture-resistant fiber and you might as well wrap plastic bags around your feet and secure them with duct tape.

How do you know which fibers welcome moisture and which ones resist it? Or how much of a moisture-welcoming fiber you’ll need in a blend to compensate for a moisture-resistant one?

Clearly there was a book in here. I taught the subject at the first Sock Summit, my students serving as my focus group. I refined the subject and sharpened my scope, and soon a book proposal was born. From that, almost two years later, came this book (shown here on its way to FedEx—but only after getting the feline stamp of approval from Casey the cat, as evidenced in the above photos).

Plentiful Patterns

To make the subject as interesting and understandable as possible, all the technical concepts are illustrated with patterns—beautiful, intriguing, varied designs that explore all the different roads in the sock-yarn kingdom. I called upon the sock-knitters I admire most, and they responded in force.

Which is why this book is graced with 20 designs from Cookie AKathryn AlexanderA. Karen AlfkeMarlaina BirdCat BordhiAnn BuddNancy BushJane CochranJared FloodNorah GaughanJen HaganAnne HansonSivia HardingStephen HoughtonMelissa Morgan-OakesLucy NeatbyCirilia RoseSandi Rosner, and Jayme Stahl.

Excerpted with permission from The Knitter’s Book of Socks

For reluctant sock knitters, I designed a simple beginner pattern (shown at left) called Stepping Stones. It’s the first pattern you’ll find in the book, and it’s intended to help you over that initial hump. You can also download it now, my gift to you.

Each sock pattern was conceived with clear intent, to answer a question, solve a problem, demonstrate a point. Several are shown in more than one yarn to show what happens when you make minor adjustments—because really, how often do you use the yarn specified in a pattern?

As useful as the patterns were intended to be, they’re also (and I realize I’m completely biased here) quite beautiful in their own right.

Far Beyond the Foot

Yes, the book is technically about socks. But it’s really about the larger notion of high-performance knitwear.

It’s about how to create a knitted fabric that fits snug, wears well, and breathes comfortably with your skin. Even if you’re not a huge fan of socks, the underlying concepts in this book will make you a smarter, more confident knitter.

Enjoy!

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