Knitting Socks

I like to bring some type of “project” with me on trips, something to do in the evenings or when taking a break during the day. During our year in Europe, 20 years ago, we were traveling light so I brought a deck of cards and played endless games of Solitare. After that I went through a needlepoint phase. Needlepoint projects are good because they are small and light, but take a long time to complete, which is just what you need on a long trip. However, we now have a dozen beautiful needlepoint pillows and don’t need any more.

Last summer, when we were in Switzerland, I worked on cotton crochet slippers, which were really fun to make, but never really worked as good slippers. I think if I use a stiffer cotton and find a good insole to make them keep their shape, these will work.

Crochet Slippers
Crochet Slippers

I taught myself to knit in the mid 90s when we were living in Seattle and Steve had one of those jobs where he was at work all the time and I had turned into a bored housewife. I love knitting. I am not a great knitter and I knit slowly, but I love the feel of the wool and making things that we wear. The only trouble is that most knitting projects are too big to bring on a trip.

For our recent trip to England, two months last winter, I decided to do small knitting projects – hats and mittens. Hats I have made before, but mittens were new to me. I did a couple of trys to find the best method, then took them apart and started again. I experimented with mitts with a thumb gusset and without (with is best). I knit them in the round and straight (in the round is best – I hate seaming). After all my experiments I ended up with two nice pair of mittens.

Knitting Mittens
Knitting Mittens

But, as with needlepoint, how many pairs of mittens do you need? I decided to take the plunge and try – socks! I had looked at sock patterns over the years, but they seemed too difficult. Thin wool, thin needles, lots of tricky bits. We went to the knitting shop in Cirencester, where I bought a nice set of needles several years ago, and talked to them about socks.

I have never met a knitting shop that I did not like. I go into them when we travel, even if I don’t speak the local language, because we all speak the knitting language. Last summer in Italy, Valerie and I went into a knitting shop looking for more cotton for my slippers project. Valerie is fluent in England, but I am fluent in knitting/crochet. It was an odd three-way conversation, but I ended up with some lovely cotton.

The shop in Cirencester is about 20 feet square and packed with wool. The woman who runs the shop had a lot to tell me about socks. I ended up buying a new type of wool, designed by Kaffe Fassett, that knits into lovely strips (Regia Design Line – 50gm ball makes one sock, 75% wool, 25% polyester, 2.5mm needles). I bought enough for me and for my friend Philippa who lives in Stroud for our shared January birthday.

First I used some wool I brought with me and larger needles to make a test sock. Then before adventuring into the new wool, I made a pair using thicker wool and larger needles to be sure I understood how they were made. At the same time that I was doing this, Philippa, who turns out to be a first-class knitter, started knitting her socks with new wool and was almost finished the pair before we left. I had not even finished by test pair.

I am almost done now, two months after we are back from England (I told you I am a slow knitter). Philippa emailed the other day to say that she loves her socks and has been wearing them non-stop (and they wash well).

Knitting Socks
Knitting Socks

Knitting socks is easy!

Knitting patterns are almost impossible to read, IMO. The goals seems to be to get the pattern down in the smallest space possible – small font, no paragraph breaks, lots of shorthand, no overall explanation of the pattern. Knitting patterns are written for experienced knitters. That is why I always do a test item – to decipher the pattern and make my own notes.

Socks are easy to make, but you would never know this reading the patterns. They are a tube with only little fiddly bit for the heal.

  • Start knitting in the round from the top of the sock down. Do a rib for an inch or so at the top.
  • When you come to the start of the heel, the round splits in half. Half for the heel, half left on a holder.
    The heel is back and forth straight down (not in the round).
  • Then comes the tricky bit – turning the heel. This is simple! A bunch of short rows make the turn and you end up with fewer stitches on your heel row.
  • Pick up stitches along both sides of the straight heel and joining with the stitches on the holder. Now you are knitting in the round again.
  • A bit of decreasing at the point where the heel started to get back to your original round size, then continue in the round.
  • Some decreasing for the toe and the very tricky Kitchener stitch to make a smooth toe and you are done.

I found a great book about knitting socks – Vogue Knitting The Ultimate Sock Book: History*Technique*Design (Vogue Knitting). This gives a good pattern overview, with photos, and many good patterns.

The best thing about socks? You need lots of them, so you have an unlimited amount of travel knitting projects. I met a woman on the plane to Savannah who told me she wears her lightweight wool socks year round. I think they might be a bit warm, but I will give them a try. If not, then I will try making cotton socks.

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Pauline Kenny

Pauline Kenny and Steve Cohen are US expats living in Dorset. We moved to the UK in 2010. Read about our move. If you would like to talk about travel, please join us on the Slow Europe Travel Forums.