In theory, socks can be knitted from any material, but practically, you will want to choose yarns which fit the following criteria:
- The yarn must be elastic enough to accommodate the varying shapes of a foot, without restricting movement or stretching out to make the sock sloppy.
- If the sock is meant to fit inside a shoe or boot, the yarn should be thin enough to accommodate your shoe/boot size.
- If the sock is intended to wear inside a shoe or boot, the yarn should be smooth enough to allow this and be comfortable. In other words, you may want to avoid knitting pompom yarns into the sock foot.
- The yarn should be durable and able to withstand abrasion. This usually means that the yarn will contain a certain percentage of nylon or be made of a longer wool breed or a blend such as cotton/wool, wool/mohair, etc. If all other factors are equal, more plies in the yarn means more durable yarn.
- The yarn should be comfortable. Good socks should not itch, rub or make your feet sweat. They should meet your standards of warmth and keep heat in your body, not draw it away from your feet.
- Socks should be easy care, either machine washable or hand washable without fuss or bother. Sock yarn should not felt easily, unless you are making felted socks.
No one yarn can meet all these requirements for every person, so it's up to the knitter to set her priorities for good sock yarn. Someone with foot problems caused by diabetes may value softness; a superwash Merino wool yarn will not wear as well as a yarn made of mohair, but it will be softer and more suited to that purpose. A person who works outdoors in work boots will find that socks knit from Merino or cashmere will wear out quickly, so she may want a more durable yarn. Wool socks may be too warm for hot climates; cotton yarns will not make for comfort in -30C temperatures. Look for a yarn which best suits your needs. (If you spin your own yarns, you can customize your sock yarns, but this is outside the scope of these notes.)
Once you've chosen your yarn, it's time to consider needle size and gauge. If you've purchased a yarn intended for socks, look at the gauge and needle size suggested on the ball band. If your yarn is not specifically designed for socks, the recommended needles and gauge will probably be too large, since those yarns are usually based on gauges for sweaters. If you knit loosely, be prepared to work socks on needles which are several sizes smaller than the recommended size. I find that knitting on square dpn's helps tighten my gauge. Most of the time, I prefer to knit with wooden needles; however, wooden needles in small sizes break. Metal needles won't break, but may not be comfortable to use. Double-pointed needles are sold in sets of 4 or 5. If you become a devoted dpn user, you'll find that the kits containing dpn's in sizes from 2mm to 3.25 mm are more economical. I like Knitter's Pride products.
Tight knitters have an advantage when it comes to sock knitting, because there is hardly such a thing as knitting socks too tightly. Priscilla Gibson-Roberts writes of knitting socks at a gauge of 12 stitches per inch (Simple Socks: Plain and Fancy), while Nancy Bush, in Folk Socks tells us of a pair socks worn by Gustavus II Adolphus, during his coronation in 1617:
They are hand knit of white silk and measure approximately 26" long. There are 25 stitches 32 rows to an inch, indicating craftsmanship of amazing skill. (p.15)
You will not likely be knitting socks at such tight gauges, but, as long as the sock doesn't abrade the skin on your feet or legs, you can not knit socks too tightly. I aim for a working gauge of 8 to 9 stitches/inch for yoga socks, or socks which fit in shoes, 7 to 8 stitches/inch for a slightly heavier sock for shoes or Birkenstock sandals. My heavy boot socks are knitted at about 5 to 6 stitches per inch; I full them for extra warmth and durability.
You may find that your working gauge is quite different from the blocked gauge of your socks. I've discovered that my working gauge is much tighter than my blocked gauge. For example, the striped purple socks below were knitted at a working gauge of 8 stitches/ inch, but they blocked out to 7.25 stitches/inch. This gauge relaxation occurs in all the socks I knit; as a result, I know to knit socks a size smaller than required because they will grow when washed and worn.
The photograph here shows 3 pairs of my socks knitted for the Sock Knitting Class. From left to right, are hand dyed 2 ply 100 % wool boot socks, which have been machine washed and dried. They are knitted at 5.5 stitches per inch. The middle pair is a hand dyed 80/20 blend of superwash Merino/nylon, fresh off the sock blockers, at a gauge of 7.25 stitches/inch. The yoga socks are knitted from a blend of 41/39/13/7 cotton, wool, nylon and elastic; their unstretched gauge is 8.5 stitches per inch on the leg; 9 stitches/inch on the foot. (The socks in the basket are pairs that I have knitted from a variety of handspun yarns over the years.)
Are you ready to begin your own hand made socks? I hope so. The next post will discuss how to make socks that fit your feet. (If you are in the Sock Knitting Class, you'll be provided with templates and additional notes, including a book list.)