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Socked

My first sock was the product of peer pressure.

Everyone else was knitting socks; they felt that I, too, should be knitting socks. By way of encouragement, they began to give me skeins and balls of beautiful, expensive sock yarn. I hadn’t been knitting seriously for very long, so I didn’t have much of stash yet. Most of it was beautiful, expensive sock yarn.

I had not yet knit a sock.

Nobody who wanted me to knit socks was willing to teach me to knit socks. They suggested I take a class at a yarn shop. The yarn shops disagreed, and suggested with fixed smiles that I stick to simpler projects, like dishcloths; or perhaps learn from a book.

The pile of expensive sock yarn continued to grow.

I turned to my little row of knitting books to see if any of the authors had mentioned sock knitting. One had: Mary Thomas.

Mary Thomas’s Knitting Book (still available as a reasonably-priced reprint) is a small, mighty classic. The author, Mary Thomas (she was a real person, not a fictional figurehead like Betty Crocker) was a British journalist and nobody’s fool. Her tone in the Knitting Book very no-nonsense. If you ask her how to do something with your knitting, she’ll tell you. However, you’d better do what she says or suffer the consequences while she gives you a corrective Mary Poppins stare.

Mary Thomas’s Knitting Book had first been published in 1938. As I read her lengthy discourse on the making of socks, I thought of all the knitters I’d read about who endured the Blitz with needles in hand. Had they been knitting socks à la Mary Thomas? I was already becoming interested in the history of knitting, and I fancied the idea of making a World War II sock.

That settled it. I braved a trip to the least frightening of the three yarn shops and a set of double-pointed needles from the disapproving owner.  She shook her head, and said she didn’t think I was ready for them yet. “You’re going to be miserable,” she said, as she dropped them into a little paper bag with a happy dancing sheep on the front.

I think she expected I’d accidentally stab myself in the throat and die. They’d bury my mutilated corpse in Graceland Cemetery. She, wrapped in the fancy black shawl from her shop window, would press my mother’s hand with smug sympathy. “I warned him,” she’d say to Mother. “I warned him–stick to dishcloths.”

I’d show her.

These were not my first double-points, but they were my thinnest by a considerable margin. And they were extra-slippery. I don’t recall the brand, and the needles themselves were long ago devoured by some couch or other. But I am sure the label must have advertised slickness as a selling point. Perhaps they were even coated with Teflon.

Mary Thomas prescribes working on three needles, knitting with the fourth. I’d knit across two of the three, hear a cheery little ding, and see the third needle on the floor.

A more experienced knitter to whom I complained said not to worry; the needles would stay put once I had worked about an inch of leg. I wondered if she would have told Sisyphus not to worry, it would all get better once he’d got the boulder to the top of the hill.

Knitting faster just made the needles drop faster. I resorted to working with the sock resting on top of a large pillow while holding my breath.

All the while, of course, I was dreading the heel. I knew nothing of how heels were worked, I only knew that many other knitters spoke of them in hushed tones. Mary Thomas went so far as to lay them out in charted form, with paragraphs of supporting text and supplementary illustrations.

I began to wonder how this had been done by the illiterate peasants in the old engravings and ancient photographs, tending sheep and children while turning heels. Where were their support pillows? How did they read the charts?

I finished the heel. I called a friend to celebrate.

“How are you feeling?” she said.

“I’m shaking and sweaty,” I said, “but it looks more or less like the one in the book.”

“Fantastic!” she said. “The rest is easier. You’ll see! Keep on going.”

“I have to wait until Tuesday,” I said.

“Why?”

“Because the shop is closed on Mondays, and I need another ball of yarn. I hope they have this brand.”

“Wait–what?”

“I’m almost out of yarn,” I said. “I have to get more, and I guess two more balls to finish the second sock?”

“Is this sock for you?” she said.

“It is,” I said.

“Then you should be able to get a whole pair out of one ball.”

“Really?”

“Did you check your gauge?”

“No. Everybody says they don’t swatch for socks, they just cast on.”

“Okay, but did you pay attention to how it looked as you worked? Does it look…big?”

“I was trying not to lose the needles! I can’t do everything at the same time!”

“Honey,” she said, “put the live stitches on a scrap thread and try the thing on before you go any further.”

I did, and felt a sense of foreboding as my foot slipped into what felt like a suspiciously saggy stocking.

Then I slipped in my other foot. And then my other leg, as there was still plenty of room.

I called my friend.

“Does sock yarn shrink to fit when you wash it?”

“No.”

“What do I do now?”

“Finish the sock,” she said. “Then embroider MERRY CHRISTMAS across the top and give it to a little kid.”

“I think I should stop knitting,” I said.

(I didn’t stop knitting. But that’s a story for another day.)


franklin habit

Writer, illustrator, and photographer Franklin Habit is the author of I Dream of Yarn: A Knit and Crochet Coloring Book (Soho Publishing, 2016) and It Itches: A Stash of Knitting Cartoons (Interweave Press, 2008) and proprietor of The Panopticon, one of the most popular knitting blogs on Internet. His publishing experience in the fiber world includes contributions to Vogue Knitting, Yarn Market News, Interweave Knits, Interweave Crochet, PieceWork, Ply Magazine, Cast On: A Podcast for Knitters, Twist Collective, and Knitty.com.

He travels constantly to teach knitters at shops and guilds across the country and internationally; and has been a popular member of the faculties of such festivals as Vogue Knitting Live!, Stitches Events, Squam Arts Workshops, and the Madrona Fiber Arts Winter Retreat.

These days, Franklin knits and spins in Chicago, Illinois, sharing a small city apartment with a Schacht spinning wheel, two looms, and colony of sock yarn that multiplies alarmingly whenever his back is turned.

Visit him at www.franklinhabit.com.

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32 Comments

  • Magic loop saved the socks for me, I start from toes and it’s sooooooo easy! And needles do not get lost 😉

  • bamboo.double points saved me!

  • I love this man. I have taken two classes with him at Vogue live in NY and they were great. He has the patience of a saint, the humor of a comedian and knitting skills to be envied. His stories and cartoons help me to remember mistakes happen, to laugh at oneself and find the joy in knitting. Keep up the good work Franklin

  • I hear’ya, Frank. There’s nothing like looking for a .0005 double point needle in a shag rug. That’s why I’ve retreated to a size K crochet hook to conquer my ever-growing mountain of multi-faceted, donated yarns. However, that hook will never keep me away from your highly entertaining, thoroughly understandable, downright hilarious relationship to yarn with which I totally relate. Keep on writin’ and knitti;, Frank, and I’ll keep on readin’ and hookin’.

  • My first socks were on two needles, seamed up the back, from a “Learn to Knit” pamphlet and Red Heart wool worsted from the 5&10 (we had those then). I was about 16, and when I went off to college the next summer, my mom wrote me that my dad sat in the evenings with those socks on his hands.

  • My feet are too warm all the time therefore I don’t need to learn how to knit socks!!!!!

    • GAGE is a four letter word. People like to throw in a needless U to disguise this fact. But I concede that it’s a necessary evil, like FOOD.

  • My first pair of socks was for my husband, a pattern from ravelry called “husband socks”. I followed that pattern to the letter, but my hubs received what amounted to oversized slouch socks. Next I tried Stephanie Pearl McPhee’s sock pattern from Knitting Rules and it fits hubs just right and that’s the pattern I use to this day.

  • Thank you for writing this essay. It was hysterical and poignant and I felt very sympathetic. We’ve all been there. It’s refreshing to read something that describes mistakes and how we need to own them rather than give up or feel bad about ourselves. We are human, after all, and we all make mistakes. I hope you knit more socks someday.

  • I can completely relate to this story. Thank you! I still have not knit a pair of socks. But I have a fantastic sock yarn supply! Lol.

  • This is why I have absolutely NO desire to ever try knitting socks!

  • Your disapproving shop owner should have sold you bamboo needles , if they were available back then!
    I’m glad I learned how to knit from A book my sister gave me. I was so fearless back then ! My second project after the scarf was A sweater.

  • Another wonderful story! Thank you.

  • Laughed till I cried
    So true so true

  • I still use support pillows, but mine are anatomical.

  • I learned from Yarn Harlot, using her basic sock recipe from “Knitting Rules!” I make about 6 pairs of socks per year using this pattern… For the last 10 or 12 years! ☺

  • You are sooo funny! I can definitely relate to your experience but the way you tell it made me laugh out loud!

  • The 1st time I knit a sock

  • A lovely story which brings back memories. Many years ago I found a yarn shop which offered classes. Remembered my grandfather once commented that he missed having a pair of hand-knitted socks. Sadly he had passed away before I learned to knit socks. So in his memory I signed up for the sock knitting class. Oh, how those double-point needles challenged me. After finishing that first pair I doubted I would ever make socks again. But I did and it was a little bit easier. While visiting the shop a few months later the shop owner suggested trying with two circular needles and Cat Bordhi’s then newly released booklet. Quickly fell in love with that technique (no sock ladders!) and still my preferred method for knitting socks. Have probably knit 30 pairs since then and gifted many to friends and family. Every couple years they ask for a new pair so I add them to the rotation of projects.

    When someone asks about learning to knit socks I offer to teach them to knit a stocking because it is larger yarn, larger needles – showing them needle options – and they only need to knit one. If they find turning the heel a bit of knitting magic I know they will likely become a sock knitter.

  • Love you Franklin. I’m still laughing!

  • I had been knitting from the age of 8. I taught myself how from a library book. Remember libraries? Those musty dark buildings with actual printed books? I didn’t attempt my first pair of socks until Debbie Bliss published her first magazine and I fell in love with the cabled socks pictured. They were knit with baby cashmere and dps 3 inches long. The socks were to the knee but I was determined. I found the tiny cables easy enough to knit other than the short dps gouged into my palms and left permanent scars. I followed directions to the letter and worked on the heel. I had gotten to a point where I needed to start the foot and I found myself totally stumped. I had stitches on one needle and had no idea where to go from there. I was tearing up so I called a friend who knit socks on a machine and asked if she had a suggestion as to what I could do. She said ” Knit the other two needles of stitches dummy! I felt so foolish but have knit over 700 pair since then. Someday I may knit those from Bliss again but with much longer dps than the pattern stated.

  • I love to knit socks two at a time on a 40” needle. Franklin, thank you for sharing your humor with us!

  • I’m still working on keeping my stitches straight and even. I think I’ll stick to crochet.

  • And people ask why I don’t knit socks….
    I got a ball of sock yarn on clearance (not a nice texture or color) because a co-worker said that “we should get together and knit a pair of socks!” Well, she has since retired and I’ve moved on to other jobs, and we never did get together to make socks.
    Anyone want some cheap, not so nice sock yarn? I will probably never use it myself. ha!

  • I love this little knitting story. I have been knitting over 60 yrs and have never tackled socks, I keep looking at beautiful patterns, but as we live in a warm climate down under, I don’t know that anyone would wear my socks even if I did make them! I use circular needles for most of my knitting, just find them so easy and never have to worry about dropping needles on buses or trains! I agree with Elizabeth about bamboo needles, I managed to pick up some brand new Circular ones at a charity shop and just love using them. By the way I do buy sock yarn, but use it for baby cardigans and scarves. Thank you for giving me an early morning laugh out loud.

  • Socks…my first time…

  • Socks…my first time…EVERYONE on ALL the YouTube channels were knitting socks…I have crocheted for (ahem..) many years…I NEED to do this…it’s not rocket science, right?? I was shown how to knit and purl…I was told how to make a dishcloth (it sat in a basket for months…)…I NEEDED to make socks…found a YouTube site with two of the nicest guys with “the easiest sock in the world”…and an easy heel…I started with 5 needles….the second pair are on circulars….and I’ve started the third pair on DPNs but will probably go back to circulars….the stash will be used…someday….

  • “Nobody who wanted me to knit socks was willing to teach me to knit socks” Ha! That sounds suspicious.
    I remember when i asked my very talented crafting mom (which included yarn craft ) when I was 17 to teach me how to knit. She was right-handed, while I was at that point extremely left-handed. After 3 attempts; the final one with us yelling at each other- I gave up. Learned decades later, though. : )

    “I braved a trip to the least frightening of the three yarn shops” “I began to wonder how this had been done by the illiterate peasants in the old engravings and ancient photographs, tending sheep and children while turning heels”.
    Been reading your stories on lb for a few years. You are sooo funny, aapt at conveying yarn craft dilemmas, and various emotions, and reactions.

    My first doubled-pointed needle adventure will eventually be chunky yarn mittens (bought the bamboo ones)- at some point after I find the yarn again.
    IF I ever attempt socks- at least I’ll I will have access to your bud Cat Bodhi’s “sweet tomato heel” instructions!

  • I fear you’ve frightened new knitters away from yarn shops! Fear not, knitters, you’ll find one that’s just right. This whole essay felt verrrrry familiar. Yet so funny.

  • I didn’t start socks for years because they looked so intimidating. I finally tackled them in 2004 and have become obsessed with knitting them. (Have used a lot of Lion Brand sock yarn!) I love ,my double points. Even though my first experience was challenging it was worth the effort. Once I figured out that the formula for sock knitting is basically mathematical, I can knit any size with any yarn. I have knit over 700 pair and will keep going. Thanks for the amusement once again Franklin!

  • This was almost my exact experience in knitting socks! I didn’t really feel “peer pressure” to knit socks, I just felt like all the “cool” knitters (read: Stephanie Pearl-McPhee, whose books I devoured once I started knitting) were doing it. So I should too. I tried to knit my husband a sock, and I was even trying Stephanie’s sock recipe. I have no idea what I did wrong, but I too wound up knitting a sock that would fit an elephant. I was so embarrassed I frogged it immediately. To this day I wish I’d taken a photo for posterity, just for fun.

    I’m happy to say that I’ve since knitted many socks that elephants would tremble at the thought of trying on. lol

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